Let Down Again in New Orleans
It's as if all that Saints magic had an expiration date. The NFL's feel-good story of a year ago appears to be just another rejected script this year. The Saints, inexplicably and virtually overnight, have gone from the hot preseason Super Bowl pick to bag-over-the-head bad, from 10 wins to zero wins. Of course, something like this happens almost every season in the NFL, but never with this kind of social and cultural consequence.
While the nightly national updates about New Orleans post-Katrina have disappeared, the area's recuperation is in earlier stages than most folks would believe. People still don't have their homes, their schools, their churches. They have the Saints. As Archie Manning, Papa Saint, said here during the "Monday Night Football" game between the Saints and Tennessee Titans, "Much of the recovery of New Orleans is built around the Saints."
After many uplifting mornings-after last season, New Orleans awoke to a downer Tuesday morning that reminded the locals of the bad old days. The Saints, playing at home for the first time since they beat the Eagles in an NFC second-round playoff game in January, got bounced around pretty good by the upstart Titans. The World War II-size headline on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune read, "Dat Hurts." The people pouring coffee and selling newspapers at the airport clearly hadn't slept much, if at all. The conversation came in short and usually angry bursts at the taxi stands, the ticket counters. Since the devastation wrought by Katrina and its aftermath two years ago, the people of New Orleans haven't had much to feel good about, but last year they did have their Saints.
And right now, that's been taken from them, too.
Renaldo Wynn, the defensive end who played five seasons in Washington, made his debut for the Saints on Monday night. He's been in New Orleans only a few weeks, but that's long enough to have been jolted into the reality of the codependence of the Saints and their fans, and how nothing like it exists anywhere else in the NFL.
"I grew up in Chicago, so I know how loyal Chicagoans are to the Bears," Wynn said. "And I played for the Redskins, so I know how loyal people in the Washington area are to the Redskins. But that's nothing compared to what the Saints mean to New Orleans. The passion is unreal. When we took the field, I could just feel the hope from last year. They wanted to explode, to celebrate something . . . and they left without having much to celebrate."
The parts of New Orleans that tourists frequent appear to be pretty much back to normal. But there are so many neighborhoods still uninhabited or where people still are living in FEMA trailers in what used to be their front yards. The population of the city has been reduced by nearly half.
"I came down here expecting things to be pretty much back to normal since it has been two years since Katrina," Wynn said. "But I found that wasn't the case at all. You run up on people all the time who are still hurting, who have no house, no place to go. The thing they have is they all love the Saints. There's a desperation about it. I tell people [in Chicago and Washington] that this is different. It's another level of loyalty. What happens here brings life and hope to the fans and to the city. You realize that we're not playing just for ourselves. It's deep, man. As much as nobody in here wants to be 0-3, losing three games is a drop in the bucket compared to losing your home. They're still fighting. This is a strong community with some kind of human spirit. Okay, we're 0-3. We've got to fight and demonstrate spirit ourselves."
Scott Fujita, the linebacker whose first season in New Orleans was 2006, has a little more historical perspective than Wynn. Asked if it's possible that trying to win for the city has put too much pressure on the players and contributed to the team's early-season woes, Fujita said, "There might be a little bit of that, but not as much as last year."
The coaches and players are desperate to find out why a team with the No. 1 offense in the NFL last season ranks near the bottom of the league this season. The offensive line is having trouble protecting Drew Brees, who has been spectacularly off-form. Reggie Bush scored two touchdowns Monday night but has had trouble busting loose. And the Saints' defense, which wasn't all that special last year, has been hammered by Indianapolis, Tampa Bay and Tennessee, 103-38. The despair that accompanied each of Brees's four interceptions on Monday was palpable.
I waited what I thought was an appropriate amount of time to call my friend Susan Saulny, a New Orleans native and reporter for the New York Times who lives in Chicago, to find out if she was okay the day after the loss. She wasn't.
"The emotional toll goes far beyond losing the game," she said. "There's that feeling that we're losing the hope in something that was a great distraction from the awfulness that is still reality down there."
After the Titans took an interception back for a touchdown to seal the game, "I turned it off," Saulny said. "My heart sank. I couldn't watch anymore. There's not a lot to be excited about when you're living in a trailer."
So it's still more a crusade than a game. The Saints have this Sunday off and hope to spend the next two weeks figuring out how to win a game, the next coming against Carolina at the Superdome. But there's the matter of having lost running back Deuce McAllister for the season with a knee injury. Without him, the Saints can't pound the ball and can't really help slow the pass rush with play-action passes.
Coach Sean Payton and his players say they aren't about to panic. But Payton did go for it on fourth down in the first quarter, down only 3-0. Plus, trailing 17-14 late in the third quarter, Brees went airborne and was knocked silly trying to gain a first down instead of sliding safely as two Titans defenders approached. He fumbled on the next snap. The effort, the sincerity, the appreciation of the unrelenting support aren't to be questioned, just the results.
Fujita, a man with a great sense of humor and irony, said: "Last year they were dependent on us. Now [having started 0-3] we're dependent on them."