Following a season in which they were displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Saints hope the addition of quarterback Drew Brees and rookie running back Reggie Bush can revitalize their team and community.
Two weeks before the Saints play their first game in New Orleans since the end of the 2004 season, they visit the Cleveland Browns on Sunday looking to get new coach Sean Payton his first win.
The circumstances surrounding the hurricane—including playing home games in Baton Rouge, La., San Antonio, Texas, and East Rutherford, N.J.—helped cause the Saints to have a poor 2005 season.
Their 3-13 record, which was their worst since finishing with the same mark in 1999, led to the firing of coach Jim Haslett and release of quarterback Aaron Brooks.
Brooks was let go the same day New Orleans introduced Brees as their new starter. Brees, who signed a six-year, $60 million contract, spent the last five seasons—four as a starter—with San Diego. Last year, he completed 64.6 of his passes en route to a career-high 3,576 yards.
“He showed the Chargers’ fans that he can lead their team … and I’m glad they let him get out of there,” Saints receiver Joe Horn said. “Now I have the opportunity to be on the end of some great passes that he gave those guys down there. I’m quite sure that Drew Brees and the whole organization will have a fun ride this year.”
Bush is also expected to add some fun to the team following three outstanding seasons at Southern California. The No. 2 overall pick in the draft, Bush won the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 1,740 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
“I’m here to win games. I’m not going to be satisfied until I win the Super Bowl,” he said. “There’s no guarantee it’s going to happen, but I’m definitely going to work my butt off to try to get to that point.”
Bush, who had 102 yards on 19 carries in four preseason games, will be part of a rushing attack that also features Deuce McAllister, New Orleans’ first-round pick in 2001. McAllister played in the first five games last year, but sat out the rest of the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee.
“We’re two different styles of backs,” said McAllister, who has rushed for 4,529 yards and 34 touchdowns in 66 games. “One thing about Reggie is he can line up in the slot or at receiver or obviously at tailback, so I think he’s definitely going to help us.”
The Saints have plenty of offensive options with their two running backs and Horn.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons,” Brees said. “Our problem is going to be not enough balls to go around—and that’s a good problem to have.”
Payton, who spent the last three years as offensive coordinator under Bill Parcells in Dallas, sees the same potential in his offense.
“We need to get our best players out on the field, so that’s we’re trying to decide,” he said.
Defensively, though, New Orleans could face some problems. The Saints’ run defense allowed 134.1 yards per game and 16 touchdowns last season.
“We’ve got to find out who our three (linebackers) are going to be,” Payton said. “That position group didn’t play well last year. We’ve got to find a way to correct that.”
The Saints will test their defense against a Cleveland team that scored an NFL-low 232 points in finishing 6-10 last season. The Browns, though, have high hopes on offense this year with quarterback Charlie Frye, running back Reuben Droughns, tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Braylon Edwards.
Frye made seven appearances, including five starts, last year and went 98-for-164 with 1,002 yards and four touchdowns. He has never played in the regular season with Winslow, whose career almost ended after a motorcycle accident in 2005.
“He can play receiver, tight end, line him up in the backfield,” Frye said of Winslow, who has appeared in just two regular-season games since being taken with the sixth overall pick in the 2004 draft. “He’ll provide a lot of mismatches. Not just for him, but other guys. So it’s going to cause maybe some confusion on the defense, but he’ll open up the playbook for us.”
Edwards had 32 catches for 512 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games last season, but is recovering from knee surgery. Droughns had 1,232 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 2005.
Cleveland has won the last three meetings with the Saints, including a 24-15 victory at New Orleans on Nov. 24, 2002, in the teams’ last matchup.