New Orleans Saints look back on long road to Miami

Paul Jannace
Reggie Bush during media day.

The New Orleans Saints began the trek to their first Super Bowl a little more than a year after one of the deadliest natural disasters this country has ever seen.

Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the rebuilding process continues to this day, but over that same time the Saints have constructed an elite NFL team.

The Saints will play the franchise’s first Super Bowl on Sunday night. The road started with a Monday Night Football game that will go down as one of the most memorable in history.

Since Katrina hit in late August 2005, less than two weeks before the start of the NFL season, the Saints spent a year playing in San Antonio, Texas, saw their home stadium used as a shelter for thousands of displaced residents, and even played a “home game” at Giants Stadium.

“I think the biggest thing was we didn’t know where we would be practicing the next day,” said Saints defensive end Will Smith. “One minute we were practicing at the local high school, the next minute we were practicing at the (Alamo) Dome, next time we didn’t know, but we were practicing at some other high school.

“Uncertainty of what tomorrow brought made everyone on edge,” he said.

The Saints went 3-13 in head coach Jim Haslett’s final season of 2005, and the future of the franchise was in doubt.

Then came the magic carpet ride called the 2006-07 New Orleans Saints.

“At the time, it brought that team closer together,” Smith said. “It made us better players because we’ve been through things that probably no other professional athlete has been through – being almost like an expansion team on the road, bouncing from city to city.”

Of course, the arrival of new head coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees, and drafting the exciting Reggie Bush helped, too.

The Saints made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and reached the NFC Championship for the first time ever.

Even Bush himself didn’t expect that kind of success so quickly.

“I am not going to lie, I was pretty scared,” said Bush on being drafted by the Saints. “I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a year after Hurricane Katrina, and they didn’t even know if they were going to have a home field to play on.”

A call from Brees, who had been doubted by several organizations coming off shoulder surgery, helped put Bush’s mind at ease.

“He told me how he got to play with LaDainian Tomlinson and he was looking forward to playing with me,” Bush recalled. “That changed my entire view on what I was going into.”

Bush made an immediate impact as a receiver and returner, including a touchdown run in the Divisional playoff win over Philadelphia and an 88-yard touchdown catch in the NFC Championship game loss to Chicago.

They fell short that season, but there was no doubt the Saints were viable in a city that desperately needed something to smile about.

“For us to be able to change the face of this organization from Day 1 is a testament to the hard work we have put in, the character of the guys on this team and the coaches,” Bush said.

Never was the viability of NFL football in The Big Easy more apparent than Sept. 25, 2006, 13 months after Katrina arrived, when the Saints played their first game at the Superdome in New Orleans since 2004.

The Atlanta Falcons came to play a Monday Night Football game, but were blitzed, thrashed and pounded right from the start. The crowd is often referred to as one of the loudest ever heard in an NFL stadium.

Six sacks and a blocked punt that turned into the game’s first touchdown were all the Saints needed to begin turning the perception of a team whose fans used to wear bags on their heads regularly and refer to them as the “Aints.”

The next two seasons – 7-9 in 2007, and 8-8 in 2008 – were disappointments, but really it was the pre-cursor to what has happened this season. They had the offensive star power, but the defense still needed work.

The addition of such players like cornerback Jabari Greer; linebacker Jonathan Vilma; safety Darren Sharper, who finished in a four-way tie for first in the NFL with nine interceptions this season; and perhaps most importantly, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made an attack-style defense that thrives on forcing turnovers and being its stingiest in the red zone.

“This season has meant a lot for all of (the people of New Orleans),” said Sharper. “It’s meant a lot for us to be able to touch their lives and bring a little bit of happiness to them. Playing for the community can never be understated.”

A city used to celebrating like no other during Mardi Gras, one could only imagine what it would be like if they had a Super Bowl championship to celebrate.

“There’s a bond that we have with our fans – between our organization and our fans – that’s truly special,” Brees said. “This has been, obviously, a storybook season for all of us – a 13-0 start and a lot of firsts. (It was) our first time to host an NFC Championship game, first Super Bowl appearance in the 42-year history of the organization, so we have a lot to play for.”

However, Brees does not believe there is any extra pressure to win for New Orleans, but rather a sense of responsibility.

“We really gain strength from our fans from the ‘Who Dat?’ nation, from the people of New Orleans, and just knowing that their spirit is with us.”

No matter what happens Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts, the Super Bowl will return to New Orleans. The NFL has already awarded Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.

“They have been through so much down there and every time we have events like that there it just helps that city become even stronger,” said Bush. “It is a continuing effort, not just by us, but by everyone.”