NEW ORLEANS — Let’s begin at a bar, because after all, this is New Orleans. It’s 2 a.m. on the morning before the Saints play the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, which means that the best place in all of the city to be is at Snake and Jake’s, a Christmas-themed establishment Uptown. Below the twinkle lights at the bar is a sign that’s been there for years. “NFL GEAUX F#*K YOURSELF WHO DAT,” it reads, and it is New Orleans football in a nutshell. These people love their Saints, and they hate the establishment, and for years, that formula has worked.
The culture of the Saints has for so long been at odds with the NFL, certainly since Bountygate and even before it. For years, they were the hapless franchise—even after this near-decade of excellence, the team still has a .442 winning percentage all-time—with fans who were a little crazy and a lot of fun. The NFL looked at New Orleans as a city where it could play its Super Bowls, but not a city where its champion might come from.
But the Saints are a franchise marked by heartbreak so much worse than those years of losing. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina almost wiped them off the map. The Superdome became a symbol of all that was wrong with the federal response to the disaster. It was a crisis, and then came the riches: New Orleans rebuilt, and so did the Saints, with Drew Brees, an unlikely hero with a destroyed shoulder, and with Sean Payton, who became a cult figure in the city. These Saints, with the years of winning and the Super Bowl victory, are their creation. But that creation isn’t what it once was.
It’s Sunday night now, and the Superdome still hums, stark and loud and a little bit drunk. Close your eyes, and in certain moments, it’s 2006, or 2009, one of the dozens of Sundays of the New Orleans Saints’ late-aughts heyday. The Dome is electric, bass pumping, face-painted fans dancing, to the point that the place appears blurry, like the building has frenzied itself out of focus.
It’s particularly jubilant tonight, because Drew Brees is back after missing the first meaningful game of his career in New Orleans with a shoulder injury in Week 3. In moments, he looks like his vintage self. It’s Sunday Night Football against the Cowboys, albeit without Tony Romo, and the game is close. The 0-3 Saints are never out of reach of beating a team widely picked to contend in 2015, and then, after a few near-turnovers and quarterback hits (and a potential game-winning 30-yard field goal plunked square off the left upright), they do. On the second play of overtime, Brees hits C.J. Spiller with a throw that turns into an 80-yard touchdown pass. “Who Dats” and jazz tunes pipe their way up into the cavernous rafters, and Brees can’t wipe the smile off of his face after the game. His team is 1-3 now, and his shoulder is better, and the six-game home losing streak is snapped. The quarterback even laughs at the botched field goal; he cops to watching the goalpost shudder and thinking he’d just have to win the game on his 400th career touchdown pass. So he did, because there’s at least that much magic left.
Earlier that afternoon, one crop of football games is finishing up, and a pair of friends in Saints jerseys are keeping an eye on the Bears-Raiders game. Posted up at a bar, they’ve been watching Matt Forte, New Orleans’ own, a Tulane graduate. He’s just finished the day with 155 yards on four catches and 25 carries, and Chicago has earned its first win. As the clock ticks to zero, one man turns to the other. “The Bears aren’t the worst f***ing team in the NFL anymore,” he says. His companion cuts him off. “Nope,” he says. “That’s the f***ing Saints.”
Before Sunday night's win, fans in New Orleans were desperate. Was Brees done? Was this return a harebrained ploy by a quarterback and coach past their primes? (No, it turns out.) These were the barstool debates that echoed through the city, and they were welcome distractions from preseason Saints banter. That chatter covered everything from courtrooms to charges of violence to Twitter vengeance. Rita Benson, Junior Galette and dead money were the talk of the town and they still are, at least when worrying about Brees’s shoulder and Jairus Byrd’s knee becomes too much.
Sunday, though, provided some respite. As the season gets churning, there’s not a fan who won’t take off-field dysfunction over haplessness on it, and beating the Cowboys 26-20 was a sign of life for the Saints. Through four games this season, the New Orleans is fifth in the league in total offense (1,549 yards) and second in passing yards (1,218) – and that’s with backup Luke McCown having started a game while Brees rehabbed. Its running game leaves something to be desired, though—it’s averaging 82.8 yards—and on defense, the team is still a work in progress, having allowed the eighth most yards of any team thus far this season.
With the 2015 debuts of Byrd and cornerback Keenan Lewis Sunday night, there’s reason to hope. But no matter what Rob Ryan’s defense becomes, these Saints will make their reputation on an offense that features a future Hall of Fame quarterback and a line that might collapse on him at any moment, at which point this whole thing would go to hell. Soon enough, the Saints will need to prepare for life beyond Brees, even if general manager Mickey Loomis told me during training camp that he sees his quarterback playing into his 40s.
In 2012, it was impossible to spend a day in New Orleans and not see someone sporting a “Free Payton” t-shirt. The beloved coach was suspended despite pleading ignorance that his team had levied bounties on opposing players, and the city was plastered with murals disparaging Roger Goodell, a name New Orleanians spit rather than speak. In the months after Bountygate, the NFL commissioner was vilified and mocked on many a Mardi Gras float. Restaurants posted signs that they wouldn’t serve him—and meanwhile, the NFL and all its pomp and circumstance came to New Orleans in February of 2013 and pumped millions of dollars into the city as it hosted the Super Bowl.
The Saints existed on the fringe, as the NFL’s crazy cousins, as if the rules didn’t quite apply. And for years, it seemed as if they didn’t. From 2009 until mid-2014, the team went 37-9 at home with an average point differential of +12.3. New Orleans was their magic, and the salary cap was their toy. When the team signed Byrd in the summer of 2014, the rest of the league raised an eyebrow. Where on earth had the Saints found $26.3 million in guaranteed money ($54 million overall over six seasons) to pay one of the league’s better safeties? They were the kings of salary-cap gymnastics—until they no longer could be. Money can be stretched and hidden and deferred only so much in the NFL, and the Saints are, once again, hit smack in the face with certain realities that are impossible to ignore.
There’s the reality of time. (Brees is 36.) There’s the reality of money. (The team owes Galette, released in July, upwards of $17 million, and the list of dead money due to other players with whom it’s parted ways is staggering.) And, most importantly, there’s the reality of direction. During training camp, the Saints talked about getting back to 2006, to the foundation Payton and Brees built. That would be how they’d rebound from a 7–9 2014. But maybe that’s the wrong way to look. Maybe the past is the past, and 2016 should replace 2006. It’s been nearly a decade since this team was the best thing to happen in New Orleans sports history, and not even the most magical team is immortal.
Even if these Saints go on to an 8–8 season, or 10–6 or even, improbably, 13–3, there’s a sense that something is ending, something that sounds like jazz and tastes like oysters and looks a lot like the most fun brand of football a city could've asked for. New Orleans can tell the NFL to geaux f#*k itself all day, but it’s time for the Saints to look forward.