- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Local legend has it that the Superdome was built on the site of a graveyard, which has cursed the NFL team that plays inside the building.

Certainly the New Orleans Saints, since the Superdome opened in 1975 — and really since the team’s inception in 1967 — have done little except provide evidence to support the curse theory.

But a new school of thought is emerging among locals almost as quickly as the Saints have emerged as the most surprising success story in the NFL this season. The belief now is that the devastating wind and water from Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed the Superdome and the city, and almost sent the Saints away for good, swept the curse away.

How else do you explain Sean Payton, who had meticulously crafted his resume in preparation for just the right head coaching opportunity, deciding that this organization, in this city, at this time, was that opportunity?

Or free-agent quarterback Drew Brees choosing the ruins of New Orleans and a 3-13 football team over any other place, and having an MVP-caliber season less than a year after major surgery on his throwing shoulder?

Or running back Deuce McAllister making a similarly improbable return from major knee surgery to regain his Pro Bowl form?

Or the Houston Texans passing on Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush and letting him fall into the Saints’ lap?

Or dozens of other implausible happenings that have coalesced — amid the massive restoration projects of New Orleans and its football team — into the Saints being 9-4 and in position to clinch just their third division title in 40 seasons if they defeat the Redskins on Sunday in the Superdome?

For sure, the rebuilding of the Saints is outpacing the rebuilding of New Orleans, but the former is making the latter a little easier to endure.

“We’ve tried to take an approach as an organization and as a team to be part of the rebirth and rebuilding of this region and this town,” Payton said after practice yesterday. “We’ve got a responsibility. We’re part of the community.

“This team is very important to this town and I think the timing of being able to play good football and give them something to look forward to on the weekends is critical.”

This time last year, Saints fans had one eye on how far up the draft order their collapsing team — which played its home games in three different cities — Baton Rouge, La. (four), San Antonio (three) and East Rutherford, N.J. (one) of all places — could climb.

The other eye — the one blackened by Katrina — was warily watching owner Tom Benson as he measured San Antonio’s Alamodome for drapes.

Then on the second-to-last day of 2005, while displaced New Orleanians were still returning home at a snail’s pace and the season the city wanted to forget but couldn’t, was coming to a merciful end, things started to change.

Benson, with more than a gentle nudge from then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, brought the team home and pledged to be a leader in rebuilding the region.

General manager Mickey Loomis fired coach Jim Haslett, who six years earlier had orchestrated a turnaround very much like the one Payton has going right now, yielding a division title and New Orleans’ only playoff victory, but never got back to the postseason.

First Payton, assistant head coach and passing game coordinator under Bill Parcells in Dallas, then Brees, whose contract with San Diego expired, signed on for a rebuilding challenge not quite like any other.

The Chargers, unsure of the health of Brees’ shoulder and with Philip Rivers waiting in the wings, low-balled their contract offer. Miami courted Brees but in the end felt better about Daunte Culpepper’s knee than Brees’ shoulder.

Loomis and Payton never blinked and showed Brees the money (potentially $60 million over six years) and had faith he would be ready by opening day. Aside from the money, Brees, like Payton, was drawn to New Orleans out of a calling to be part of something bigger than football.

Then came the biggest curse-buster of all, the Texans deciding to pass on Bush — the most eagerly anticipated NFL draft choice in years — and selecting Mario Williams with the first pick last April. Payton and Loomis, armed with the No. 2 pick, were out at dinner the night before the draft when they learned Houston had agreed to a contract with Williams.

Payton took a pen out of his pocket, grabbed a napkin and started diagramming plays to use the talents of Bush, the game-breaking runner/receiver/kick returner, and McAllister with Brees.

“I believe that God has a plan,” Bush said, “and it was in His plan to have me here.”

One Saints fan at a raucous draft-day party celebrating the selection of Bush, put it into perspective: “It’s like someone else won the lottery, and they threw away the winning ticket and we picked it up.”

Payton continued hitting winners, big and small. He showed an acute eye for talent in overhauling more than half the roster — using several players he was familiar with — and brought organization, discipline and attention to detail to a team that badly had lacked in all three areas.

Little by little, questions about various positions on the team were answered positively. An offensive line that had no starters returning to their positions from last season, and which included a rookie from Bloomsburg State (Jahri Evans) starting at right guard, solidified.

A linebacking corps featuring one free agent — Scott Fujita — and two players brought in via trade with the start of the regular season looming — Scott Shanle and Mark Simoneau — helped transform one of the league’s worst defenses into a capable one.

Marques Colston, a wide receiver from Hofstra drafted 250 spots after Bush, led the NFL in receiving yardage until he was temporarily sidelined with an ankle injury.

The Saints, who always seemed to possess whatever would be called the opposite of a Midas touch, suddenly had luck on their side.

They opened the season with victories at Cleveland and Green Bay, then rechristened the Superdome, severely damaged while serving as a refuge during Katrina, with a 23-3 victory over Atlanta on “Monday Night Football.”

The Saints have never been out of first place this season and opened eyes around the country — even in New Orleans — by routing the Cowboys, who had won four in a row, 42-17 in Texas Stadium last Sunday night.

And so New Orleans is on the verge of clinching its first playoff berth since 2000 and just the sixth in its history. It’s in position to gain a first-round bye for the first time. Brees is threatening historic passing records, Bush is starting to produce a highlight reel like the one he had at USC, and fans continue to fill the Superdome; the Saints sold out season tickets for the first time in franchise history.

“You’ve got a lot of great citizens of New Orleans that are very committed to rebuilding the city and that are just so excited about Saints football,” Brees said. “I think in times of tragedy and times like this, people look to whatever they can to lift their spirits. I think for a lot of people, that is Saints football.”

Though you don’t have to venture too far from the Superdome to see stark reminders of the work left to be done to rebuild this city, as they march toward virgin territory in these parts, the Saints are making it a little easier for the faithful to believe there’s no such thing as a hopeless cause.

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