Second-Year Coach is Reason for Saints' Success
It wasn't that long ago that the New Orleans Saints were the joke of the NFL.
Even before Hurricane Katrina drove the Saints out of the Crescent City and into the somewhat foreign locales of San Antonio and Baton Rouge , the Saints were a disorganized laughing stock. They were one of the few franchises in the most wildly successful league in professional sports that simply could not do anything right.
Suddenly, the Saints are a free-agent destination, a model franchise and a favorite to earn the NFC's bid to Super Bowl XLII in Glendale , Ariz.
The reason: head coach Sean Payton.
Yes, it's that simple. Sure, the Saints made some wise moves prior to Payton's arrival. The often-criticized decision to draft Ohio State defensive end Will Smith in the first round in 2004 looks to be a brilliant move now. The same goes for the move to draft Ole Miss running back Deuce McAllister in 2001 and send Ricky Williams packing to Miami a year later.
One can't blame the disaster that was the 2005 season on any Saints brass either. Hurricane Katrina put the Saints in a situation that few -- if any -- teams could handle.
But two short years after Katrina mauled the Gulf Coast , the Saints are the toast of the NFC.
"It's amazing what one year can do," Saints second-year running back/star/endorsement mogul Reggie Bush said. "It's amazing what you can do in one year and how all of a sudden the media and every person are on your side now.
"They're pulling for you and they have us ranked in the preseason to go to the Super Bowl, but you still have to play football. We try to not allow those things to be our main focus and we still focus on playing football, because at the end of the day, nobody's going to do it for us."
Payton would be proud to hear Bush's words. The Saints' training camp has certainly been all business. There's nothing glamorous about Jackson , Miss. , nothing extravagant about dorm rooms on the Millsaps College campus or occasional practices in Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium -- a venue that has most certainly seen its best days come and go.
Instead, the Saints are grinding away in the preseason, a legitimate candidate to win a Super Bowl title.
"What has happened in previous years isn't necessarily a predictor of what will happen this season," Payton said. "I think we have smart enough players to understand that this is a different team and a different season.
"Our strength of schedule is going to be tough right off the bat. We are playing the best team in our league from a year ago ( Indianapolis ) in Game 1. We will have to be sharp right from the beginning and I think they understand that. They also understand the areas we need to improve in to be a better team. It's kind of a 'show me' league, and this year we will have to start all over again."
During the buildup to the 2006 draft, there was speculation that Bush would sit out the season if the Saints drafted him. Then he met Payton, and most of us missed the significance of that encounter. Over the past 18 months, the Saints have become a free-agent destination. Drew Brees signed. So did Jason David, Kevin Kaesviharn, Dhani Jones and others. Character-laden NFL veterans know a good thing when they see it, and while he doesn't want to take sole credit for it, there's really little doubt it's Payton who has quickly changed the Saints' reputation around the league.
"That's something that can change quickly in a positive or negative way," Payton said. "I think players in our league look for destinations where they can win and for places where the fit is right. Make no mistake about it, though, there's still that part of it that's related to contract and money. Hopefully we continue to become a place where guys look at -- be it players, coaches or anyone, for that matter -- as a good spot to work and an organization that's a winner. That's something you battle every day. We just have to keep making strides in that direction."
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