Can Brees, Bush Save Football in New Orleans?

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006; 12:21 PM

The Saints are back in New Orleans. And they have a team that's actually worth getting excited about, thanks to a pair of major offseason acquisitions. The club signed quarterback Drew Brees as a free agent, and selected tailback Reggie Bush when he fell to the Saints for the second overall choice in the NFL draft.

Will that be enough to save football in New Orleans? Many people in the league remain skeptical. But it certainly makes for an intriguing season as the franchise returns to the city from which it was displaced last year by Hurricane Katrina.

The Saints were the feel-good story in sports when they won their opening game in Carolina last season. But they won only two more games, and the strain of being based in San Antonio and splitting home games between there and Baton Rouge, La., wore on players, coaches and team officials. Some players never forgave NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for ordering the club to play its first scheduled home game of the season in Giants Stadium against the New York Giants.

But it's practically a new team that will be in the Superdome when the hurricane-damaged building reopens in September. The Saints fired Jim Haslett as their coach and hired Dallas Cowboys passing game coordinator Sean Payton to replace him. League and NFL Players Association officials fretted last year that free agents wouldn't sign or re-sign with the Saints. They needn't have worried. Brees signed a six-year, $60 million contract with the team.

It isn't a certainty that Brees will be the highly productive quarterback that he was the past two seasons in San Diego. The Saints were able to sign him because Brees's apparent first choice, the Miami Dolphins, were wary of his salary demands and surgically repaired right shoulder, which Brees injured in his final game with the Chargers. Still, he gives the Saints a potential franchise quarterback after the team had to endure the ups and downs of Aaron Brooks, who was released and signed with the Oakland Raiders.

The Saints did lose some good players in free agency, as center LeCharles Bentley signed with the Cleveland Browns and defensive end Darren Howard headed to the Philadelphia Eagles. But both can be replaced. The Saints traded for Browns center Jeff Faine, who had lost his starting job in Cleveland to Bentley, during draft weekend. They had benched Howard at the end of last season in favor of Will Smith.

The break that the Saints needed came when the Houston Texans, the owners of the top overall selection in the draft, passed over Bush to choose North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams. That left the most dynamic player in college football falling into the Saints' laps. Still, the Saints deserve credit for taking him at a time when controversy was swirling around Bush. He could be difficult to sign this summer, and the Saints already had a fine tailback in Deuce McAllister. But once the Saints get Bush under contract, they'll have a player who can change their offense, and Payton will have to be creative to find ways to get the most out of both McAllister and Bush. The team is trying to trade tailback Michael Bennett, who was signed as a free agent to back up McAllister but became expendable when Bush was drafted.

The Saints might not be a playoff team. They play in a fine division with one potentially excellent team in the Carolina Panthers and two others that could be good in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons. There certainly are no guarantees that the franchise will remain in New Orleans; many people in the league remain convinced there's a good chance that the team will be moved to Los Angeles in the future. The Saints announced recently that they'd sold about 55,000 season tickets, a franchise record. The level of support from the business community, however, hasn't been nearly as strong.

But now, at least, there is promise and there are possibilities as a rebuilding city welcomes back its rebuilding--or perhaps already rebuilt--football team.

Around the League

The Tennessee Titans might make one more attempt to repair their relationship with Steve McNair by working out a restructured contract with him and agent Bus Cook that would keep the veteran quarterback with the team. All indications, though, are that such an attempt would be unsuccessful and McNair is headed toward being traded or released and will land with the Baltimore Ravens.

An arbitrator ruled Wednesday that the Titans must allow McNair to participate in offseason workouts at the team's training facility as long as he's under contract to the club. Arbitrator John Feerick ruled in favor of the NFL Players Association, which had filed a grievance on McNair's behalf after the Titans barred him from participating in workouts at the team's headquarters.

Titans officials feared that McNair would suffer an injury that would leave the club liable for his full $9 million salary for the 2006 season. The Titans wanted to renegotiate McNair's contract, which counts $23.46 million against the team's salary cap this coming season, but could not complete a deal.

The Titans attempted to settle the dispute by trading McNair to the Ravens during the NFL draft. Cook negotiated a new contract for McNair with the Ravens after being given permission by the Titans, but the two teams could not agree to a trade. The case went before Feerick, who heard seven hours of arguments during a hearing last month in Nashville . . .

The June free agent market probably will be slow this year.

The June market traditionally has been the second wave of free agency because a team could release a player then and delay most of the salary-camp impact of the move by a year. But with the big jump in the salary cap this year, from $85.5 million per club last season to $102 million per team this coming season, and a new rule that a team can release one player before June and still get the salary-cap benefit that it used to get by waiting until after June 1, there likely won't be much activity . . .

The Houston Texans are scheduled to begin a second round of interviews for their vacant general manager job. Charley Casserly's resignation is effective today. Front-runners Rick Smith, Denver's assistant GM, and Reggie McKenzie, Green Bay's director of pro personnel, likely will meet with Texans officials again this week. The Texans also have interviewed Rick Mueller, the Saints' director of player personnel . . .

Detroit signed free agent offensive tackle Ross Verba, who was out of the league last season, and released quarterback Shaun King.

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