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The Offseason That Saved the Saints

Revisiting the arrival of Sean Payton, Drew Brees, and the group that revived football in New Orleans

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mike Karney can still see it all. Most memories from his seven-year NFL career have faded, but the former fullback, who retired in 2012, can close his eyes and visualize each detail from the Saints’ fall of 2005. “I could tell you everything,” Karney says. “That’s how vivid it is in my mind, and how easy it is for me to go back.”

He remembers the morning of August 28, when Jim Haslett, then the Saints head coach, walked into the weight room at the team’s facility, where players stood gathered around TVs tuned to CNN. Hurricane Katrina was rapidly approaching the Gulf Coast, and Haslett told his guys that they were leaving three days early for a preseason game in Oakland. Karney packed for five days away from home; he’d be gone four months.

He remembers the water bottles that were thrown and the jeers that reverberated when the Saints were told they would spend that season in San Antonio. He remembers his resigned but frantic teammates rushing from apartment to apartment, looking for a place to live. And he remembers the sight on the team plane every time the Saints hit a tarmac that fall: dozens fast asleep, up and down every row, exhausted by a schedule that included “home” games in three states.

The Saints’ hardships that season are worth keeping in perspective; they pale in comparison to the struggles of thousands of New Orleanians in the wake of the storm. As Karney watched veterans scramble to relocate their families, he felt lucky that a Ford F-150 and some clothes in a pre-furnished apartment were all he had to his name, and that he held a job that came with a free plane ticket and a temporary home. For a football team, though, the 2005 Saints faced the most difficult circumstances imaginable: no continuity, no rest, and no routine. They went 3–13. Their quarterback was benched. Their coach was ultimately fired. When the Saints returned to New Orleans in January, their slate was clean. That next season would begin the franchise’s process of starting over, just as it would for the whole city.

Sean Payton was hired as the Saints head coach in January 2006. Drew Brees signed as their quarterback two months later. When the pair arrived in New Orleans, the franchise had won a single playoff game since joining the league in 1967. In four decades of existence, the Saints had recorded five double-digit-win seasons. In the past 10 years, they’ve posted the same amount, and a Super Bowl banner is hanging from the rafters.

Now, after two straight seasons mired in 7–9 mediocrity, expectations for this current version of the team have started to wane. The 2015 Saints fielded one of the worst defenses in NFL history, allowing more passing touchdowns (45) than any other unit ever. Brees is 37 and entering the final year of his contract, and Payton’s downplaying rumors of his departure has become an annual offseason tradition. The window may be closing, but looking back, it’s remarkable to think it was ever open at all. New Orleans’s healing process after Hurricane Katrina was always about more than football, but even if the 2006 Saints didn’t save the city, they certainly saved its NFL future.

Payton was 42 years old when he came to New Orleans, following three seasons spent learning under Bill Parcells in Dallas. The former Eastern Illinois quarterback had joined Parcells’s staff after working three years as the Giants offensive coordinator, and any doubts about his promise as an offensive mind could be assuaged with one simple fact: During Payton’s final year with the Cowboys, Parcells let him call the plays. It was the first time the Hall of Fame coach had given up that duty in more than 10 years.

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Getty Images

When Payton was hired in New Orleans, the top of the 2006 NFL draft was already coming into focus. The first three picks were set to go to the Texans, Saints, and Titans, and that year’s class was filled with rock-star prospects. USC running back Reggie Bush was the presumptive no. 1 pick, meaning the Saints would probably have their choice of Matt Leinart, Bush’s Heisman Trophy–winning QB, or Vince Young, the Texas quarterback who had sprinted past the Trojans to clinch the national championship. The notion that New Orleans was likely to take a quarterback wasn’t laid to rest when Brees, who’d just turned down a lowball offer from the Chargers, signed a six-year, $60 million deal with the team on March 14. But those odds did take a significant hit.

At the time, Brees’s choosing the Saints over the Dolphins, his other main suitor, drew mixed reviews. Coming off of surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, Brees was seen as a stabilizing signing by some. “Ultimately, Leinart or Young would represent a home run,” Jim Mashek wrote for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. “Drew Brees is more like a stand-up double.”

Others felt differently: New Orleans had landed the prize of free agency less than seven months after the city’s nadir. “See, there were more reasons for Drew Brees not to be a Saint than to be a Saint, more reasons for him to have run from the team’s offer than to it, more reasons for him to plant roots in South Beach with the 9–7 Dolphins than to have cast his lot with the 3–13 Saints,” John DeShazier wrote for The Times-Picayune. “But the Saints wooed him — perhaps the best player on the NFL’s free-agent market and, by a landslide, the best quarterback of the crop — and won him. And if the organization seems a little giddy today, you can forgive it.”

Brees and linebacker Scott Fujita, who had signed a day prior, marked the first major moves of New Orleans’s offseason, but they were hardly the last. The most striking part of the 2006 Saints roster, a decade later, is just how much turnover it had. Eleven of the team’s starters hadn’t been on the roster the season before. When the Texans shocked the football world by taking defensive end Mario Williams with the first pick that April, the Saints were more than happy to snag Bush at no. 2. Two other rookies from that draft — fourth-round guard Jahri Evans and seventh-round wide receiver Marques Colston — grew into starting roles. And three starters were acquired via trades (Jeff Faine during the draft; Scott Shanle and Mark Simoneau in August). After a complete roster overhaul, selling the team as a chance for a rebirth was easy.

Fujita acknowledges that all the new faces lent the locker room a fresh-start vibe, but says the holdovers from 2005 allowed the roster to coalesce. The stories that players like Will Smith, Charles Grant, and Terrence Melton told about the horrors of the previous season helped him grasp what was truly at stake. For the newcomers, Hurricane Katrina was no longer a series of heartbreaking images on cable news. Its realities had affected people who were now coworkers, roommates, and friends.

There were instances, Karney says, tucked away at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, during the most grueling training camp of his career, that he felt a small rift between those who were on the 2005 team and those who weren’t. “There were moments where something would be said, and you’d think, ‘You have no idea what we went through,’” Karney says. “For me, it was about not internalizing everything and not making it out to be that. Something would be said, and you just have to accept that this person doesn’t know. I’m not going to punish that person because he didn’t go through what I went through.”

For Fujita, that camp featured small, quiet connections that laid the groundwork for the charmed months to come. He and Brees were roommates in Jackson, and they spent nights talking about all that had brought them there. As a group, the Saints embraced their status as afterthoughts and also-rans — the “mutts,” as Payton put it. The season’s defining moment would come a few weeks later, and there’d be nothing quiet about it.

The Saints opened the 2006 season with road wins over the Browns and the Packers, and three days before they were set to reopen the Superdome against the Falcons on Monday Night Football, Payton famously brought his team to the stadium for the first time. The players gathered on the 50-yard line, and without a word, a video came onto the Jumbotron. Spliced with images of the devastation were clips from that preseason. “It was a heavy, heavy, quiet moment,” Fujita says.

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Getty Images

Part of Payton’s motivation that Friday night, Fujita suspected, was to “knock the dust off a little bit, to get that emotional moment over.” If that was the intention, though, it didn’t work on Karney. As the fullback went through pregame warm-ups a few days later, he stared at the already packed stands. The stories he’d heard about the immediate aftermath of Katrina filled his mind. A year earlier, some had died seeking refuge in the Superdome, but in that moment the building was alive. “I remember [tight end] Ernie Conwell, who played in two Super Bowls with the Rams and won one in ’99, he came up to me and said, ‘You want to know what it’s like to play in the Super Bowl? Look around,’” Karney says.

“I remember looking over at the Falcons and just thinking, ‘They want no part of this game.’ We had already won the game. It’s that simple.”

What’s lost now is how close Steve Gleason’s blocked punt — the play that sparked a magical season, inspired a statue, and revived a franchise — was to never happening. On third-and-4 during the Falcons’ opening drive, Fujita yanked Atlanta’s Michael Vick down for a sack, and the ball came spilling from his hands. Before the Saints could recover, it rolled harmlessly out of bounds, allowing history to take over.

By the end of the game, with the Saints leading 23–3 and Karney sitting on the sideline, the memories from the previous season became overwhelming. Conwell wrapped his arm around his friend on the bench. “There’s a picture of [Ernie] consoling me, and I’m just crying so hard,” Karney says. “It just took you over, everything the city went through, the people had went through, what we had went through as a team. To be able to reopen the Dome in that fashion, it was too much.”

The next three months marked a turnaround that could rival any in NFL history — not just from season to season, from 3–13 to 10–6, but from one fate as a franchise to another. New Orleans had gone 39 years without appearing in an NFC championship game; Brees, Payton and Co. made it in their first season. On the day Payton was hired, Peter Finney of The Times-Picayune wrote, “Here in town I’m guessing, for starters, fans will be happy to settle on Sean Payton simply taking the Saints to a Super Bowl, and less on winning two of them, which Parcells did as coach of the New York Giants.” Four seasons after his arrival, the Saints beat the Colts to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

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Getty Images

In one offseason, New Orleans went from a leaguewide punch line to a team with a puncher’s chance every season. Brees went from a quarterback forced to bring video of his shoulder surgery to free-agent meetings to one of the most prolific passers of all time. There have been 13 seasons in NFL history in which a quarterback has thrown for 4,750 yards and completed more than 65 percent of his passes. Brees has five of them; no one else has more than two.

Ten years after Brees and Payton arrived, nothing — not subsequent memories of Bountygate, not the ugly ownership battle in New Orleans, not the cloudy futures for both quarterback and coach — can detract from what the Saints have accomplished. Considering the four decades that came before, it’s nothing short of a football miracle.

And it all traces back to the days leading up to the 2006 season. Brees, Payton, and many others came to (or stayed in) New Orleans not only to further their careers; they also sought to reinvigorate a football culture and do what they could for an ailing city. Fujita had several suitors in the spring of ’06, so when the linebacker told friends and family that he was considering heading to New Orleans with his first free-agent visit, the response was … mixed. “[They] thought we were fucking crazy,” Fujita says. “[They asked] ‘What are you doing? That place is in shambles.’”

Yet among the 12-foot watermarks and still-deserted streets, Fujita felt a pull from both the city and the Saints’ staff. After speaking with Payton and GM Mickey Loomis, Fujita canceled the rest of his visits. He knows how it sounds now — how cliché-riddled the notion of being called to a place must seem — but that March, it was real.

“I think we’re all guilty of overstating the importance of sports sometimes,” Fujita says. “These are just games, but if felt like this could be something that mattered to people.”

Fujita moved to New Orleans for the Saints’ offseason program in late March, and for the few weeks he hunted for a place, he holed up in the Embassy Suites in the city’s Warehouse District. After practice most nights, he’d wander the streets near the hotel, popping into random bars as a way to learn the neighborhood.

Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant became his haunt, to the point that Fujita eventually bought a condo upstairs. But whether it was Lucy’s or some other watering hole, the reception was always the same. He’d sit down in a mostly empty bar, and the bartender would ask what brought him to town. When he answered, the beers became free and the thank-yous became endless.