Nearly a year ago, the good, resilient people of Louisiana threw an earsplitting party at the newly repaired Superdome, and the guests of honor decided to share les bon temps with a football-watching nation.
On an emotional Monday night that began with U2 and Green Day together onstage and ended with giddy fans spilling out of the Dome and dancing in the streets of the Big Easy, the New Orleans Saints emerged as America's darlings. Their 23-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons gave the long-suffering franchise a 3-0 record that the Saints later parlayed into their greatest season, culminating in a first-ever NFC Championship game appearance.
Before Pacman tore up Vegas, Michael Vick (the losing quarterback that night) got the choke-chain around his collar and Bill Belichick became embroiled in a video scandal that would make Paris Hilton blush, the Saints were the plucky surprise that made us all smile. They were the feel-good story for the new millennium, a post-Hurricane Katrina marvel that showed no signs of abating.
And now? Well, put it this way: On Wednesday, at the behest of owner Tom Benson, the struggling Saints got a prolonged, choreographed and somewhat awkward ovation at the start of practice from team staffers and their family members.
America, meanwhile, has dropped this 0-2 team like Devery Henderson squandering a potential touchdown pass, a predictable state of affairs that second-year coach Sean Payton is willing to concede.
"I think a lot of people have moved on," Payton said. "Adulation is something you've got to earn in our country, and we haven't done that. Right now, we just want an opportunity for the local people to love us."
As the Saints prepare for another Monday night home opener, this time against the Tennessee Titans, there is a lot to hate about the way they've looked in their first two games. Having been outscored 72-24 in consecutive blowouts by the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans suddenly seems flawed at many positions, especially wide receiver and defensive back. Even Payton, the boyish-looking wizard whose prescient play-calling humiliated mentor Bill Parcells and so many other coaches last season, is on a cold streak of Art Schlichteresque proportions.
"I hate myself for using this word, but there's no synergy right now," outside linebacker Scott Fujita said. "The disappointing thing is that we talked about these lofty expectations before the season started, and we never really responded. Anybody who thought we could just turn it on got some serious smelling salts the past two weeks."
Now the Saints are facing a near must-win situation against a Titans team on the verge of becoming this year's surprise contender, and this isn't about fairy-tale finishes or repairing the psyche of a reeling region. On Monday, simply put, we're going to find out how tough this team is, from the coach to the quarterback (Drew Brees) to the grunt workers whose names many of you don't even know.
The Saints' early-season troubles could be deep-rooted, or they may merely be, as Payton believes, "a bunch of small things – penalties, dropped passes, turnovers, giving up the big pass play – which are biting us in the butt at bad times." The team has virtually every key player back from last season, but most of them, including Brees and standout halfbacks Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, aren't playing nearly as well as they did a year ago.
In the case of Bush, a marketing machine who spent the offseason following his standout rookie season in an endorsement-driven whirlwind, his choppy start has prompted criticism about his commitment level from some close to the organization. One source points to a dinner that Bush hosted in June for a few dozen teammates at a popular New Orleans-area oyster house after a week of offseason workouts.
To his credit, Bush picked up the tab. To the surprise of many, he didn't bother attending.
That said, Bush, who is well-liked in the locker room, could obliterate that minor social faux pas from everyone's minds on Monday with one electrifying touchdown run. The Saints are convinced that such a play could snap them out of their funk and put them back among the ranks of Super Bowl contenders, especially given the relatively depressed state of their division (the Buccaneers and Panthers are tied for the NFC South lead at 1-1) and conference.
Perhaps, but this also must happen: The offensive line must block better. McAllister needs to get the ball more and run as decisively and effectively as he did last season. Brees has to make better decisions, and the receivers have to do a better job of getting open and holding onto the ball. The defensive line (zero sacks) has to show up, the linebackers need to make more plays, and newly signed cornerback Jason David and his fellow defensive backs need to stop getting abused.
Oh, and new kicker Olindo Mare has to get it together, too. Other than that, the Saints are rolling.
On Friday, Benson will try to tap into the team's emotional reserve once more, as he opens the team's facility to fans for a post-practice rally, complete with concessions, a live band and a performance by the team's cheerleading squad, the Saintsations. You can bet the fans in the Superdome will be in Mardi Gras mode by Monday as they attempt to summon the magic of '06.
"That seems like a long, long time ago," Payton says wistfully of last year's home opener. "But we'll put our chin into the wind and try to fight through this, and I'm anxious to see our response. I think we've got enough leadership, and we're put together in the right way, that we'll respond well."
Says Fujita: "Right now what we need is some kind of spark. Hopefully, that'll come from a player making a big play, but maybe just being back in the Superdome will be what kicks it in. Something has to happen to give us our swagger back, and if it starts with the crowd, we'll take it."
If the spark comes Monday and carries over, the rest of the nation may not get overly excited – and that's fine. A region's resiliency is a heartwarming hook, but a team's perseverance is what the locals seek, and that might turn out to be a better story in the end.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Tony Romo, in front of about 75 festive friends and family members, will make the Cowboys the NFC's team to beat with a win in the Windy City on Sunday night … The Bengals' Misery Tour will continue in Seattle, as Matt Hasselbeck will mess with Cincy's defense all day … The Rams will let it rip in Tampa – and finally win a game as a result.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Oakland, to see Brady Quinn and JaMarcus Russell watch the Browns battle the Raiders. Yes, really, that's what I want. Granted, Indy-Houston (Dan Wetzel will be there) and Dallas-Chicago (Charles Robinson) are better games, but I have to see this Derek Anderson thing in person, in case it A) all goes away as quickly as it arrived or B) turns into Kurt Warner II. I talked to Anderson on the phone Thursday and picked up the same utter lack of pretense I encountered the first time I met Warner in 1999, beginning with the fact that Derek's wife, Lisa, drives him to and from work every day in the couple's Chevy Tahoe. "We only have one car out here," he explained. "She drops me off in the morning, goes and works out and gets me when I'm done."
LIES, LIES, LIES
1) The NFL announced that it has destroyed all of the materials it received from the Patriots relating to the videotaping of defensive signals, but only after clearing it with FOX's Jay Glazer.
2) Cal quarterbacks coach Kevin Daft, who spent time with the Titans and three other NFL teams after starring at UC Davis, told "The Gameface" that Asian-American backup QBs really have it toughest.
3) O.J. Simpson is a criminal mastermind.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
Hail to the Chiefs, who've been picked on and come through twice, with last week's 20-10 road defeat to the Bears allowing me to live another day. But Kansas City is going to win this week, against Minnesota at home, so I need to find a new victim. Enter the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers, who are about to get devoured like a Primanti's deluxe double egg and cheese by the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
Two weeks into the season, my buddy Malibu, who literally got drowned out by laughter while making most of his picks (many of them influenced by my decidedly unconventional advice) for "Beat The Gypsy" on draft night, sits atop his 12-team Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football league with 310.86 points and a 2-0 record. But Keith Richards may soon be droning "Comin' Down Again" on Malibu's iPod speakers. "Nooooooooo, dude, noooooooooooo!" Malibu screamed when I told him the Texans' Andre Johnson, his fourth-round steal, might be out at least five weeks with a sprained knee. "We're screwed, 'cause we have the depth of a Fox News anchor." That, indisputably, is his fault – Malibu's stalkerish love for the Chargers led to the acquisition of Michael Turner, Craig ("Buster") Davis, Malcom Floyd and Brandon Manumaleuna, and his misplaced fascination with suspended skill players landed him Dominic Rhodes and Chris Henry. Still, with Carson Palmer, Joey Galloway, Clinton Portis, Kellen Winslow and Adrian Peterson stepping up, Beat the Gypsy has a decent shot to make it 3-0 against Team 420, whose big guns (Eli Manning, Deuce McAllister, Frank Gore, Deion Branch, Hines Ward) have yet to light it up thus far. Earlier this week, Malibu picked up Joe Jurevicius to fill in for Johnson, while I advised him to consider the Colts' Anthony Gonzalez (Peyton's starting to like him, and he's better than you realize) as an alternative to Mike Furrey.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Does it really matter whether Donovan McNabb is right or wrong when he says African-American quarterbacks are held to a higher standard? The only issue, from my point of view, is that he seems to believe it, and I have no particular interest in questioning his first-hand opinion. Most of all, I'm happy he was willing to say something publicly that wasn't bland and predictable – something for which he was often criticized by some of the same people ripping him now for speaking out.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Mark Ecko, who spent $752,467 to acquire Barry Bonds' 756th career home run ball, then announced plans to "democratize" its fate by allowing website visitors to vote on whether to donate it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, brand it with an asterisk before giving it to Cooperstown or sending it into space on a rocket ship. Yes, as Bonds told the San Francisco Chronicle, "what he's doing is stupid," but so what? As with the joke about why a canine licks himself in a certain sensitive region, Ecko is doing this because he can. He also makes some killer clothing that's comfortable as hell, and at least he knows how to have some fun. Bottom line: This dude's got ball.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
"Don't Taser Me, Bro"
IF CAL WINS A FOOTBALL GAME I'LL …
As a former NCAA player of the year and two-time U.S. Olympian, Cal water polo coach Kirk Everist has achieved some lofty goals. Now, as he attempts to guide the second-ranked and defending NCAA champion Golden Bears to their 13th national title, Everist is setting his sights on the Big Enchilada – alas, in a purely metaphorical sense. "If Cal beats Arizona on Saturday I'll give up all forms of Mexican food – including the margarita," Everist says. "So you can just stick me in the corner with Joe Kapp until Jan. 1 at midnight. Brutal." This is especially bad news for Kirk's wife, Kim ("She's gonna kill me," he says), for Everist's players (deprived of his go-to meals, he's gonna kill them) and for the proprietors of El Charro in Lafayette, Calif., where Everist is known to destroy the shrimp fajitas on a regular basis. But he also remembers that Arizona's upset victory over the Bears last November ended up costing them an outright Pac-10 title and what would have been their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1959. For the sixth-ranked Bears, winning the conference opener is mandatory if they're going to reach the promised land. "There's lots of good Mex in Pasadena," Everist reasons. Vaya con Dios, amigo.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
To the Browns and Bengals, to the tune of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio."
"Six touchdowns and Johnson's running
Leaping into the end zone
Take cover cause beer is coming
No 'D' in Ohio
Look at Jamal Lewis
Running for 216
Thought he was done long ago
See all those prone bodies
Lying there on the ground
Like Anderson was Marino"
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"You're obviously not from New England and have no idea what fan loyalty is. They won last night, fair and square. Even you can't argue that. There is no way in hell they could have cheated. And they still embarrassed what was supposed to be the 'Best team in the NFL'. (Expletive). New England will always stand behind its teams, coaches, and players, and if you don't like it, too damn bad. Even your precious LT said 'If you're not cheating, you're not trying.' Every team cheats in one way or another, I challange you to prove otherwise. And who the hell are you to refer to anyone as 'Massholes,' they're fans. They're the people who pay to go to games, buy jerseys and allow guys like Tom Brady and LT to do this for a living. You think they don't have a few choice words for New England players when we hit the road? Please, open your eyes and get a clue … ."
My, are you Pats fans sensitive. So let me get this straight: Your team is headed for a fourth Super Bowl; your coach blatantly violated a direct edict from the commissioner and was punished for it; you got to watch Tommy and the gang respond by destroying the Chargers prompting you to taunt the reigning league MVP; and we're all supposed to love you, too? That's what I'd call a high-maintenance fan base.
"Mr. Silver, do you hate the Patriots because they committed a videotape infraction or because they win? Was watching Sunday Night Football 'sheer torture' because you wanted them to lose amid the videotape controversy: the proverbial nail in the coffin sealing the fate of those 'cheaters' in New England? Or was the sickness in your stomach because of the dread of realizing that all the media was wrong: the Pats championships were not in question, the Pats' past wins were legitimate. They put on a football clinic in Foxboro (Mass.) against the seemingly best team in the NFL. The nation loves this videotape controversy: it's an excuse to publicly hate on the Pats for something other than being a winning franchise. But you didn't need the videotape scandal to show how you feel. You just want them to lose. You hated Belichick before the videotape controversy got blown out of proportion (there I said it). You, as a member of the media hate Belichick for his lack of emotion during press?conferences because he makes you work for a story. You hate his attire on the sidelines (does the media seriously critique his sideline attire much like Joan Rivers critiques clothing on the red carpet? The answer is sadly YES) and you hate Belichick because he should be in the Hall of Fame now. Thank you for publicly showing the nation, with your articulate article, that you simply hate the Patriots. I'm sorry that their winning ways make you physically ill. By the way, yes, I live in San Diego and the week before the game I heard all kinds of smack talk about 'revenge match' and 'cheaters,' and LT saying that 'if we play them 10 times we beat them 9' and blah blah blah. Keep talking nation and Mr Silver. And get that Dramamine ready – it'll be a long season."
OK, let's clear up a few things: I do not root for any NFL team. I believe that Robert Kraft is the best owner in sports and, as I wrote in last Friday's "The Gameface", I have a ton of personal and professional regard for Bill Belichick. I've covered all four of the Pats' Super Bowl appearances in the Kraft era and thoroughly enjoyed doing so, and I personally had no problem with them winning that game. And I think it's silly to infer that any of their past successes were the result of stolen signals. With all of that said, I stand by my assertion that the combination of Belichick's blatant disregard for a rule of which he was recently reminded by the commissioner, his oddly worded non-apology/apology and the bizarre belief by Pats fans and some players that merely winning a football game (or many games) somehow justifies any dubious behavior has not played well in the rest of the country. And though LaDainian Tomlinson may have called the Pats "classless" after last January's playoff defeat and chided them with the "If you aren't cheating, you aren't trying" quote last week, he's still a model citizen who projects positive values on and off the field, and chanting that he "sucks" is juvenile and undignified.
"Nice job on the article about the Patriots, you clown. The problem, which you are too ignorant to address, is that cheating is allowed in the NFL. You just cannot use video. You can steal signs all day long. You can even wire up your helmet and steal audibles (like Zach Thomas did last year in a 21-20 loss by NE to Miami) and it's OK. You can also steal your boss' playbook and bolt to NY too. You can also sit back and watch your team lose the AFC championship to the Colts because some ref imagined a pass interference call, and then spotted the Colts seven points … only to have the NFL 'apologize' two months later. … Yeah, you never plagiarized anything either, huh? Go back to sleep."
No, Johnny, I never plagiarized anything. That would be cheating, and it's not allowed in journalism. And whatever you think is or isn't allowed in the NFL, Roger Goodell made it abundantly clear that videotaping opposing coaches on the sidelines absolutely wasn't, and the Patriots did it anyway. Is that so tough to wrap your head around?
"Dude, you sound like a big baby and sissy. The simple fact is Belichick all his life is a defensive genius – this scandal has not changed this. Some how you media folks have a narrative and the Pats are not cooperating with you. Stop crying – the Pats have the hardest schedule in football; once they complete that and go to the playoffs maybe you can stop the 'cheaters' always win stuff. Please move on."
All I can say is: The baby is in the eye of the beholder. Based on my sadistically full inbox, I'd say this: If Steelers fans wave Terrible Towels, they might want to hand out some Henna-Scented Hankies at Gillette.
"You know, you have some nerve. The Patriots won that game fair and square. They don't need to cheat. So Belichick did something he wasn't supposed to do. … He made a mistake. Don't pretend like you've never done it. Everyone's disobeyed their parents. That's what he did. He disobeyed the 'Dad' of the league. No one was vomiting at the computer because the Patriots played a great game. (Philip) Rivers having thrown two interceptions had nothing to do with Belichick. Brady marching his team in their usual dominating fashion had nothing to do with the Jets game. That's what LT gets for running his mouth so much before the game. I was hoping they would play Toby Keith's 'Red White and Blue' during the game because the Patriots 'shoved a boot' up the Chargers' ass! I don't care if you love them or hate them, the Patriots deserved to win that game."
They absolutely deserved to win that game – and many people who aren't as passionate about the Pats or are, in this case, on Dad's side, reserved the right not to take immense pleasure in it. Is that so tough to take?
"As I read your obnoxious article on the Patriots, I just thought about you being in front of me right and what I would want to say to you. You're an ignorant (expletive) and you wish you had a home team like the Patriots! Where are you from, Buffalo? Must be frustrating, huh?"
That's … well, hot. I hope I can say this without angering my wife, but all these salty emails from you New England ladies are really starting to turn me on. You can come hang out with my crew at Cal games anytime.
"Not a question, just letting you know you have become my favorite sports journalist because of your creative, insightful and real columns. You don't thrive on hyperbole like 99 percent of ESPN and you seem to genuinely love and know the NFL. Thanks to you and your colleague Jason Cole for some real reporting about the Belichick witch hunt. As a lifelong Pats fan, I appreciate a voice of reason out there. I wish I had stock in Dramamine though! :)"
Oh, darn, a nice girl …
"Your a fool, and a baby your latest story is honestly horrible, not because i am a Pats fan, i could be from any city and realize you are only trying to feed off the emotions of a lot of unknows a monkey could write a better story it's easy to bash anybody, i challenge you to get better, if not i will be applying for your job, and i guarentee you this, outside of my grammer and spelling, i am, as are many out there 100 times the writer you'll ever be no offense please just stating fact."
Here's a guarantee: Thousands of people will read this, smile and wonder how tremendous it would be if your little fantasy were to come true.
"Unquestionably, Bill Belichick arrogantly violated NFL rules and has been appropriately vilified at the national level. Although few would actually say it, we here in New England have been a little uncomfortable with some of the questions floated during the last week in the wake of the videotaping disaster. Is it possible that those three titles were tainted by cheating? Was Belichick a championship coach, or more a highly successful expert in espionage? Sunday's rout of the Chargers allowed us all to relax just a little bit and restore confidence in the abilities and accomplishments of this team. Embarrassed? Yes, we are. Past accomplishments tainted? Absolutely not."
You make way too much sense, and it's unnerving me.
"So you take Dramamine if something doesn't go the way you want it? … It's funny how you write about something you think is unethical in a game. However, your answer is drug use. … Seems your morals are convenient for you."
In this case, an over-the-counter, anti-nausea drug used to invoke sarcasm. So forgive me if I decide to just say no to your email.
"A very bashing article, nice but not very professional. See you at the Super Bowl party in New England. One more thing: When LT said that the Pats beat one of the best teams in the NFL he was way off. On paper San Diego might look good but after two games they are way down on the list of good teams and oh yeah they are cry babies. If your the classiest player in the league you do say, 'I'm a classy guy.' The moron forgot the reason people called him classy is because of how he acted. After last years loss, hit true colors came out. Love them or hate them, the Pats are the team to recon with and beat."
I'll give you that – the Pats are definitely a team to recon with.