Words and numbers crackled through the transmitter inside Saints quarterback Drew Brees's helmet, but they didn't fit together in the customary way—they didn't form the arcane symphony of formation, protection and movement that guides the actions of 11 offensive players. They seemed randomly plucked off a keyboard. Meanwhile, on the sideline, New Orleans coach Sean Payton looked down at his game-plan placard, spat out pieces of one play into the microphone on his headset, paused, and then restarted with pieces of another one. It was the football equivalent of gibberish. This was late in the second quarter of the Saints' season opener against Atlanta on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, with the game tied 10--10. Brees put his hands over the earholes on his helmet and walked toward Payton.
In the outsized world of the modern National Football League, the smallest of moments are easily inflated—filmed, narrated, set to music and elevated to mythology. A single kickoff return plays like Lawrence of Arabia. And so Payton's return to the Saints' sideline was not to be a small moment: One of the most successful and respected coaches in the recent history of the sport was returning from a suspension that kept him away from his team—banned, even, from entering any NFL stadium—for the entire 2012 season, which the Saints finished at 7--9, their worst record in five years. "We didn't have our leader," wide receiver Marques Colston said in August during training camp. So for Payton's return there would be pyrotechnics. There would be drama. There would be, as was inscribed on shirts around New Orleans, REDEMPSEAN.
Except that, even with all that, sometimes a relationship is rebuilt on small moments that better explain the bond. Here was one of those moments. Brees listened to Payton fumbling with his call. The two men had come together to New Orleans in 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed so much of the city and its spirit. It was Payton's first NFL head coaching job and he put his offense in the hands of Brees, who had arrived from San Diego as a free agent with a surgically repaired throwing shoulder and no other suitors. Together they won a Super Bowl three years later. Now Brees looked at Payton.
"I felt like I knew the play he was trying to call," says Brees. "But he just couldn't get it out. I think maybe it wasn't on the play card for this game; he was looking for it, and he was starting to call out some plays and then looking around the card. And all the while the play clock is running. So I just ran over and asked, 'Do you want me to run—' and I named the play. And Sean just looked at me and threw his hands up and said, 'Yes!' "
September 16, 2013
At the end of the afternoon, nickel safety Kenny Vaccaro knocked down a pass intended for Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez in the end zone to preserve a 23--17 Saints victory. The outcome was a small but not insignificant slice—"Everything else doesn't mean a thing if you don't win the game," Brees said afterward, standing alone in the New Orleans training room, swigging from a bottle of Gatorade—of a much larger story.
Few teams in the history of this league have experienced a season like the Saints' 2012 campaign, a scandal-driven interruption of what had been a six-year entrenchment among the league's power teams. In March of '12 the NFL hit New Orleans with unprecedented penalties for its participation in a bounty program in which defensive players were paid cash bonuses for injuring opposing players. The franchise was fined $500,000 and docked two second-round draft choices, and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who oversaw the bounties, was suspended indefinitely. (He is now an assistant with the Titans.) G.M. Mickey Loomis was banned for eight games, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six. But it was Payton's full-season suspension, equal parts punitive and embarrassing, that rocked the sport. It was an unprecedented sanction for an NFL head coach.
Without Payton, the Saints lost their first four games, won five of six in the middle of the season and then staggered to the finish line with four losses in their last six. Their defense was beyond toothless, ceding a record 7,236 yards on the season. After winning a league-high 37 games over the previous three years, the Saints missed the playoffs. "Since coach Payton came here, the culture changed around this franchise," says right tackle Zach Strief, who also arrived with Brees and Payton in 2006. "A 7--9 record was no longer acceptable around here." It was a lost season that ended with the Super Bowl played in their city by two teams not named the Saints.
Payton was finally sprung from his suspension in January, nine months after it had begun. He has talked sparingly about his time away from the Saints, especially with major media outlets that he feels were critical of his role in the bounty scandal. (He declined an interview request from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED through a team spokesman, without elaboration.) But upon first meeting with his team last spring, Payton stressed the need to bury 2012 as quickly as possible. "The past is the past; that was the message," says veteran slot receiver Lance Moore, another '06 Saints debutant. "Last year was tough for everybody. But he wanted us to put all that behind us."
Yet as the season approached, Saints players sensed an urgency that veterans hadn't witnessed in years. Practices were longer and more physical than they had been since the early days of Payton's tenure. "It was like 2006 all over again," says Strief. "Back then, Coach Payton was trying to get us to believe in being physical and outworking people. Gradually we had gotten away from that. So we went back."
On Aug. 9, New Orleans opened the preseason with a 17--13 victory over Kansas City in the Superdome. It was Payton's return to the sideline, and although preseason games customarily symbolize nothing, this one was different. "He came in afterward and he was fired up," says strong safety Roman Harper, another class of 2006 Saint. "I thought we did all right, but Sean was like, 'Guys, maybe it's just me, but you didn't miss a year, and I did. I missed it so much. I love it so much.' He was really into it—after an exhibition game."
Payton wasn't the only one counting the days until he coached again. Last Friday hundreds of New Orleans fans gathered in Champions Square, a football-field-sized plot of concrete between the Superdome and the Hyatt Regency hotel, which had been severely damaged by Katrina and did not reopen for six years. The occasion was Gleason Gras, a combination fund-raiser for former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who suffers from ALS, and pep rally in preparation for the opener against the Falcons (who are not only the two-time defending NFC South champions but also have long been regarded with contempt by the denizens of Who Dat Nation).
Among the faithful were brothers Jacob, 27, and Jonah Keller, 33, and Brad Verrette, 30—all part of a group of roughly 30 friends who bought season tickets in 2003, four years after the Saints went 3--13 under Mike Ditka. Today they sit in Section 652 of the dome, "six rows from having your back against the wall," says Verrette, where players look like insects on the green carpet below. Like many Saints fans, they resent the lost year and welcome the restart. "You only get Drew Brees at his peak for so long," says Jacob Keller, "and then that window closes. It seemed like last year, with Sean Payton gone, we lost a year of opportunity."
Nearby, Brad Burke, 35, stood in the evening humidity alongside insurance colleague Will Martinez, 28—two season-ticket holders in Section 146 of the dome's lower bowl. Burke's father first bought his seats when the team was in its comic infancy. "The league didn't want us in the Super Bowl because it was in New Orleans," says Burke, putting voice to a popular conspiracy theory in these parts. "But we're going to the Super Bowl this year because Payton is back calling the plays for Brees. He's the mastermind."
THIS PAST off-season it was commonplace to gravely take the NFL's pulse as the league (and football as a whole) suffered a justifiable daily pummeling over the physical damage done to its players. One week before the start of the season, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million in damages to more than 4,500 former players who had sued over concussion-related brain injuries suffered on the field. The sport continues to wrestle with the conundrum of how to make a violent game safe, and at times football seems to teeter on the edge of crisis. Yet Saints fans—the fans of every team, for that matter—complicate that discussion immeasurably. They want football. Last week, they wanted Payton.
On Saturday night the Saints stayed at the Westin hotel, a couple of football fields from the Mississippi River on the outer edge of the French Quarter. As Falcons fans in red jerseys chopped it up on Bourbon Street, sharing space with Saints fans in their black and gold, Payton spoke at a team meeting in the hotel's ballroom. Saints players say that no tears were shed and that no specific references were made to time lost or to penalties served. But Payton spoke longer than usual, and in more detail.
"It was Atlanta," says Strief, "so we knew the game was coming down to the last possession. Usually in that situation Sean is going to leave us with one thing to think about. He told us, 'Don't turn the ball over. Hold on to it. And if you're holding the ball, you're holding the hopes and dreams of the whole team.' I thought that might be it, but then he kept going. He talked about finishing the game. He talked about the importance of rushing the ball and of making plays in the red zone. Everything was covered. I've never heard him do that."
"There was a sense of urgency in the room," says Brees, "like Sean didn't want to leave anything unsaid."
One day earlier, after a rare walk-through practice at the Superdome (this, too, was different; usually the walk-through is at the team's facility in suburban Metairie), Harper and Brees had been among the last players to return to the locker room following extra tape study and a weightlifting session. Standing in the middle of the room, his hair and beard prematurely dotted with gray, Harper, 30, summoned distant memories to describe the emotions that were building. "The way the fans are pushing us, the excitement around the team," he said, "it reminds me a little of 2006."
In so describing the start of the season, Harper edges on blasphemy. Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, 13 days before the Saints were scheduled to open the season against the Panthers in the Superdome. Instead, they opened in Charlotte and nipped the Panthers 23--20 in the closing seconds. But they won just two more games that year under coach Jim Haslett, their 12th non-winning season in the previous 13 years. They played their "home opener" in New Jersey against the Giants and split their other seven home games between Tiger Stadium at LSU and the Alamodome in San Antonio, where they practiced and set up temporary operations. Owner Tom Benson had started his chain of car dealerships in San Antonio and did little to dispel rumors that he wanted to move the Saints permanently out of New Orleans.
Against this depressing backdrop, the Saints returned to the Superdome for the 2006 home opener with a victory over the Falcons. Gleason blocked a punt early in the game, jump-starting an emotional 23--3 victory on a singularly powerful night. Harper was not the first to make the comparison between this season and that one. For those needing further symbolism, before Sunday's game Payton stood alongside Gleason's wheelchair on the 30-yard line, held his former player's right arm in the air and pulled it down to trigger the Saints' Who Dat? chant. Yet as the crowd roared its approval, Payton scarcely changed expression. In a press conference after the game, a reporter asked if the stadium's atmosphere reminded him of '06 and Payton vigorously rejected the suggestion. "Today, it got loud near the end," he said. "In 2006, that game was different."
And that is a fair reaction, both out of respect for the memory and as a means of embracing a businesslike approach to the present. Yet the comparison will chase the Saints through the late summer and into autumn. They have all done their penance—coach, players, fans. Now they have their football lives back. "Two-thousand-six was a long time ago," Moore said following Sunday's win. "And that opening night was the most emotion I've experienced as a football player. But today was close. It was really close."
How does the Saints' upset win shake up the NFC picture in Chris Burke's weekly power rankings? And does forecaster Don Banks see a New Orleans win streak in the works, with Tampa, Arizona and Miami up next? The coverage continues online at SI.com/NFL
Another week, another wild division rivalry. Peter King tells you everything you need to know about Sunday's 49ers-Seahawks tilt (as well as one brotherly battle: Peyton versus Eli) in his Window into the Weekend video at TheMMQB.com