Remembering the role Sean Payton and company played in helping New Orleans rebuild after the hurricane devastated a city. Plus, mailbag questions on preseason alternatives, journalistic integrity and the rookie symposium

By Peter King
August 26, 2015

I never would have believed the Saints would be what they are today—an institution almost on the level of the French Quarter in New Orleans—after Katrina hit 10 years ago this week. Nor would the people who went through it.

“I remember driving from the airport to the team facility as a free agent the spring after Katrina,” said Scott Fujita, who signed with the Saints in 2006, “and there’s only one way to describe what I saw: post-apocalyptic.”

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Lots of thoughts today, just three days shy of the Katrina anniversary. The first is that I’m proud of something we at The MMQB are bringing to you today: a long-form video by our new video correspondent, Amy K. Nelson, about coach Cyril Crutchfield and the little town of Port Sulphur, which was ruined by Katrina. It’s beautiful, and human, and something I recommend strongly. So watch it up top or through the link, and then come back for my own story of Katrina.

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One of my fondest memories of a story in this job—and I’ve worked for the Sports Illustrated brand since 1989—came the year after Katrina devastated New Orleans. I covered the Saints’ draft in April 2006 and went down a day early with my wife to work at a Habitat for Humanity site in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The devastation was absolutely not to be believed, of course; in many neighborhoods it looked as if the hurricane just happened yesterday. There were houses resting on top of cars, as well as washing machines and (in one case) a garage. Most of the hotels were open, but that’s because the economy needed visitors, and so the French Quarter and downtown got the most attention in the months after the hurricane.

Superdome in August 2005 (AFP/AP)

In April 2006, the Saints, like their city, were a mess. A total mess. They were coming off the 3-13 debacle of the previous season, spent in San Antonio because of the relocation brought by the storm. They fired Jim Haslett as coach and hired Sean Payton. The rebuilding job was massive. Payton and GM Mickey Loomis signed Drew Brees to be their quarterback, but he was coming off major shoulder surgery, and there was no guarantee the shoulder would heal. And behind the scenes, commissioner Paul Tagliabue was working to make sure the Saints didn’t leave town and permanently relocate to San Antonio.

But that was no lock. That day at the Habitat for Humanity site, I met the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, who has since gone to prison on a corruption charge. But that day, while folks around us rebuilt a small neighborhood of modest homes, Nagin—who saw me as someone who could send a strong message to the rest of the country and to the NFL—spoke stridently. Give us one year of football and normalcy, at least, so we can get this knocked-out region back on its feet.

“Psychologically,” Nagin said in the midst of the reconstruction on the battered lot that April day in 2006, “the Saints mean everything to this community right now. We need them now more than ever, at least until get back on our feet.”

That day, I recommended to Payton and Loomis that they come by the site if they had even a short break in their draft meetings, because it would do them good to see what was going on in the community. And it'd do the volunteers good to see that the Saints cared. There was a bonus: President George Bush would be there that day, at this very site, and Payton and Loomis, who came over on their lunch break, got to shake hands with the volunteers and meet the president of the United States.

This set up an interesting scene at the site. President Bush, who didn’t expect to meet the Saints’ honchos, was a big football fan. He wanted to know who was going to draft Vince Young in a couple of days. The Saints kept it quiet, but it was obvious they had their minds on another top prospect, Reggie Bush, the USC running back.

• THE SAINTS' CLASS OF 2006: A decade later, three late-round picks from a unique draft class are still around as franchise cornerstones

Payton and President Bush met. Nagin and governor Kathleen Blanco stood by. Payton beamed. He loved President Bush.

“How about this?” President Bush said to Payton. “A 42-year-old guy from Eastern Illinois, coaching the Saints, living his dream!”

“Only in America!” Nagin said.

Walking to his car a few minutes later, Payton said: “Maybe we can meet the other Bush on Saturday.”

Of course the Saints did. They drafted Bush (over A.J. Hawk) with the second overall pick, bypassing Young. By draft-day afternoon, phones were ringing off the hook at the Saints’ ticket office, with new season-ticket buyers. That would be the key to the Saints’ survival. (That, and winning.) I interviewed a fan, Joey Mangiapane, who found $520 to join with six friends to buy prime sideline tickets. “I bleed black and gold,” he told me. “The Saints need us more than ever.”

As Reggie Bush rode in a car from the airport to the Saints’ facility after he was drafted, he saw what Fujita saw a few weeks earlier on his free-agent visit. His eyes were like saucers. I can tell you: Reggie Bush, Heisman winner, college hero, looked scared out of his wits, traveling through this hell zone. “I’m still a kid,” he said sheepishly. “To be honest, I’m a little nervous about it all. I realize for the first time I’m leaving the perfect world of southern California.”

Bush and Brees helped Payton and Loomis build a winner, and a Super Bowl champion. It was a brilliant job of coaching and building, the likes of which the league has rarely seen, because the obstacles were gigantic. Fujita recalled that Tuesday.

“In 2006, everything was screaming, Don’t come here!” he said from his California home. He’s retired now, with his Super Bowl ring, wife and three children. He loves New Orleans so much that he’s helping make a movie about the life of good friend Steve Gleason, the ex-Saint who has ALS, and he almost went to Saints’ camp this summer to observe the team and help Payton any way he could.

• THE EVOLUTION OF THE SAINTS’ PASSING GAME: New Orleans plans to move away from the vertical air attack that has defined the Payton-Brees era

“The community needed us,” Fujita continued. “We needed the community. And it worked. This is why the marriage is so special between the team and the town, why the Saints are now so deeply rooted in the community and you just can’t imagine New Orleans without the Saints.”

What a difference 10 years makes. Whatever the football future holds for the Saints, Payton and Loomis and these players should be forever celebrated for the work they did to help save a franchise—and help keep one of America’s treasured cities alive.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.  

Now for your email:

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IMPERFECT PRESEASON SOLUTION

With all the preseason injuries and players starting to speak out about them, I have an imperfect idea for a solution. I’ve found that highlights from joint practices between two teams are fairly entertaining. I’ve also been to in-stadium practices for season-ticket holders that were interesting.  What if, as a trial, one of the four pre-season games were constructed more as a joint practice, with situational play (two-minute drills), skills contests, helmet cams, wired players and coaches also incorporated? In fact, the NFL could use it as a test for new technologies in traditional broadcasts.

—Ben, Watertown, Ct.

I think your idea is brilliant. I think scrimmages like this could be held in college stadiums somewhere between the two teams—maybe at Bowling Green or University of Toledo in a Cleveland-Detroit scrimmage for example—and the winners would be the fans, as well as coaches who would have a more controlled look at the players they need to see most before they cut their rosters. Thanks for making the suggestion.

INSIDER INTEGRITY

The word “integrity” has been tossed about as if it had any actual bearing in how the NFL has conducted itself. This is where I challenge you, Peter.  Are you going to investigate and report WHY you were lied to? Are you going to investigate and report why the NFL typically needs mere seconds to correct tweets, reports, etc., but continues to sit idly by six months after the Patriots asked them to correct information the world knows now to be erroneous? Are you going to investigate why Fraudger Goodell changed his story about Wells being an independent investigator to fit his agenda? Are you going to disclose your source? (And before we mount the moral high horse, consider whether a source that lied to you like that is a source worth protecting.) This is a crossroads matter for you, Mr. King, whether you realize it or not. If we hear nothing more substantive from you on the story, it only perpetuates the general perception that you are one of the media members that is too afraid to go up against the mighty NFL and lose your meal ticket, truth be damned. Why worry about being an NFL insider when the institution you are promoting has been revealed to all as being an immoral sagging house of hubris? Do something special, sir, and free yourself.

—John, Boston

Many topics to cover here. Let me try to get to as many as I can.

As to investigating why I was lied to: As I wrote this week, I believe that the person who told me that Chris Mortensen’s report was accurate did not believe it to be a lie. The person was saying what the person believed to be accurate. I continue to maintain that someone inside the NFL, very soon after the game, was misled somehow, and I don’t know how, about the psi levels in all the footballs. And I also continue to believe that there would be no reason for this person to tell me a lie at this point because a thorough investigation was coming, in which all of the information gleaned and gathered at halftime and after the game would be made public. I have never understood the logic of people who would say that the NFL gained so much by putting out a false narrative. I understand the Patriots being angry about this because essentially it gave America months to be convinced that they cheated. But to me, it just makes the NFL look worse when the Wells report came out, because that narrative from January was chock full of holes.

As to why I was lied to, I will say that I am convinced that the person who told me this was passing along what this person felt was accurate information.

As for your question about the long delay in correcting the record, there is no excuse for this. It doesn’t take any investigation to know that the NFL has made a serious error in not correcting incorrect information in both the media reports and in the Jan. 19 letter to the Patriots from league executive Dave Gardi that contained obvious wrong information.

• FALLOUT, FALL GUYS AND FINGERTIPS: The preseason claims two important players, Cris Carter’s senseless advice and Peyton Manning’s surprising admission about his throwing hand. It’s all here in Peter King's Monday Morning QB

As for the Goodell charge, there is no question that if Wells really were an independent investigator, he would not have submitted his report to league counsel Jeff Pash before publishing it. I don’t know what agenda you are talking about, but you are correct in inferring that it is ludicrous to say that an investigation is independent and then have it read over by the organization's legal counsel before it is made public.

As for disclosing my source, I’m not going to do that. I am disappointed I was misled, obviously. But I believe in the basic tenets of journalism, one of which is you do not out sources.

As to whether I should give up whatever benefits come from being an “NFL insider,” I don't know how to answer that. I know that I try to use my conscience to make judgments when I cover stories, and sometimes those judgments are proven wrong. I hear the clamor out there that I have erred recently and it shows that I am too close to the NFL. All I can say is that I go to work and try to tell stories as truthfully and accurately as I can. You have to be the judge whether you are going to trust me or read me. I can only tell you that I will continue to be as fair as I can, and sometimes I will make mistakes. But they won’t be mistakes made because I am trying to cover up for anybody. I hope I answered your questions.

ROOKIE SYMPOSIUM

Mr King, I just read Robert Klemko's comments on the 2014 rookie symposium. It is official. You and The MMQB are part of the problem when I read stuff like this. You no longer have any real autonomy to report on the NFL, which also means you have zero credibility. I've been reading your work for a long time, but no more. I am done.

—Richard F.

I’ve heard this quite a bit in the past day or so. The thing I would say in response to those who would say things like you do, that we’re incapable of reporting stories fairly and impartially when it comes to the NFL, is that I think there is a bit of a naive understanding out there of how a huge organization such as the NFL is covered by people who write about it every day.

Times have changed in covering the NFL since I began in 1984. Then, I was living in a dorm at Cincinnati Bengals training camp in Wilmington, Ohio. If I had a question about something I saw in practice that day, I could walk down the hall and knock on head coach Sam Wyche’s door and ask him. Before his first draft as coach of the Bengals, Wyche went over with me the list of players the team planned to take. He just asked that when I wrote my story, I be careful in how I attributed where I got the information and not tell anyone in any other NFL cities. No internet in those days, of course. I laugh when I think about how much access and information just bubbled out of that Bengals team, from the coaching staff to players, to owner Paul Brown.

Today, to be able to get access and to be able to get inside information, oftentimes you have to give people the assurance that if you are on the inside of a story—say, when I was inside the St. Louis draft room in 2013—that if some scout blurts out some really negative thing about one of the team’s own players, the team is going to be able to say, “That's got to be off the record.” I have no problem with that. I think it’s fair. You might not, but the information I got in that particular story, and in many others where I have made similar concessions about one or two off-the-record comments or stories, overwhelmingly made it worth it. I’m not changing the way I operate. I appreciate your honesty in your note.

ON RAMS RELOCATION

I don't fault the L.A. fans for their enthusiasm. Just as St. Louis/Baltimore/Houston fans didn't do anything to cause their NFL teams to move, neither did L.A. However, after the rash of relocations 20 years ago the league installed what they said were strict guidelines for a team to receive approval to leave its home city. One major factor was that the team should exhaust all possibilities of a new stadium in its home city prior to relocation. No serious case could be made that Stan Kroenke has satisfied that requirement. The St. Louis area is preparing to build a new state-of-the-art stadium to replace a 20-year-old stadium. Yet Mr. Kroenke won't even talk to leaders in the St. Louis area. Oakland and San Diego have been trying for years to replace their old dilapidated stadiums. Why should the league have rules on anything if they can't live up to the rules they've all agreed to accept?

—Tim M., O'Fallon, Mo.

I can’t defend Kroenke’s unwillingness to engage the city of St. Louis in any substantive talks. That is on him, and it should be part of whatever decision the NFL makes about St. Louis and Los Angeles. As I see it, this is about one thing only: the belief that no matter what St. Louis would do—after what Kroenke apparently sees as the city's failure to live up to its original agreement to keep the stadium modernized as a top-tier NFL venue—it wouldn’t be enough for St. Louis to compete with the L.A. market. I believe Kroenke determined long ago that he wanted to go L.A. and now he is just trying to figure out a way that he can do so without suing the NFL to get there. I understand the frustration of people in St. Louis. This is not necessarily fair. I hope when the dust settles, St. Louis still has an NFL team playing in a beautiful new riverfront stadium.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.  

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