It's only been three days and already I miss the Saints.
I miss the scary raw talent. I miss the maddening unpredictability. I miss the donnybrooks on the team plane. I miss the Droopy Dog owner comparing his million-dollar players to a high school team. I miss the quarterback with the 19th-best passer rating in the game, the guy who threw a pass backwards this season, calling himself "a great quarterback." I miss the Bayou Rudy kick returner who used to drive a beer truck.
I miss the half-time explosions from the coach. I miss a team so beautifully screwed up that when Kyle Turley and Mike Martz looked over at them on the TV in the middle of their fracas, they surely thought, "Wow, those guys are really messed up." I miss the kind of guts it took to come back from a 4-8 start and reach the doorstep of the playoffs. I miss a team so cool and loose and so perfectly comfortable on the razor's edge that they made the Carolina Panthers look like a bunch of Nervous-Nellie spelling bee kids on Sunday.
So, well, yippee, the playoffs are here. The mess has all been sorted out and organized into a neat little squeaky-clean after-school special. You have your geniuses in New England, your methodic robotic D in Pittsburgh, your precision O in Indy and the all-American boys in Green Bay.
Where are the bullies? The wild men? The villains? The curfew breakers and the helicopter mooners? Where?
I'm all for parity. But after examining the NFL playoff field, I'm starting to wonder if we aren't about to experience our first bit of parity backlash. Where I'm sitting -- meaning the office above my garage where my daughter just walked in covered with purple indelible ink from trying to 'become' Barney during her nap -- half the teams still playing don't seem all that spectacular or scary to me.
Welcome, my friends, to the NFL's Mild-Card Weekend. A place where, as stated so perfectly by both Ayn Rand and the Incredibles, if everyone is supposed to be special, that's just another way of saying no one really is.
In this almost cartoonish era of parity, the only thing that makes the early rounds of the playoffs palatable are the underdogs. The Panthers last year. The Pats before them. Who gave the Broncos a chance against the Packers in 1998? Every playoff season needs one or two junkyard dogs in the mix -- a team just crazy enough to question the Genius or smack the Steelers in the mouth or bully the Golden Boy up there in Indy.
On Sunday in Charlotte, I watched Deuce McAllister crack the Panthers in half. I watched Charles Grant and Darren Howard repeatedly snap shut on Jake Delhomme like a bear trap. I watched the oh-so-cool Aaron Brooks tip his blue felt fedora after the game (and his fourth straight 3,500-yard season) and slice through a group of waiting reporters. And I thought, "Yep, Nawlins could have been that team."
After pounding the Panthers into submission, the Saints could sense it, too. A month earlier, Jim Haslett had called his team together and told the players they had two choices: Get on board or follow him back up to his office and get released or traded. Now, the weary coach, the dark bags under his eyes the only thing adding any color to his pale face, was standing at a podium deep inside Bank of America Stadium and calling his squad the hottest team in the NFC.
(If the Saints are dumb enough to get rid of Haslett, then they didn't deserve him in the first place. Is he an elite coach? No. Is he a good coach who is perfect for this team? Absolutely. Who else is gonna coach this freaky franchise? Tom Coughlin? Please.)
"We really could have quit at 4-8, but this team stuck together through a lot of stuff -- and it was not too pretty," said Haz. "It's a shame we can't keep playing."
In the hallway after his presser, Haz was greeted with a warm bear hug by Sam Mills, a Panthers coach and fellow member of the NFL linebacker fraternity. (Mills, by the way, is the only player in the Panthers ring of honor -- although this area of the stadium also includes a spot for personal seat license owners, the yokels who were the first fans dumb enough to pay for the privilege of buying a season ticket. Anyway ... ) A few feet away, just under the TV where the team watched the Rams beat the Jets in OT, thus eliminating them from the post-season, a Saints receiver, tugging on his shoulder pads as if he wanted to rip them in half, screamed, "Aw, man, you know Green Bay did not want to see us -- YOU KNOW THEY DIDN'T. No one wanted to see us."
Well, I sure did. Instead, who do we get, the Seahawks? Shaun Alexander is such a nice guy he can't stay mad for more than 12 hours. The Broncos? They got beat 45-17 by the Chiefs, possibly the softest team in the league. The Vikings? Ah, yes, the Vikings, a team that backed into the playoffs so hard their fight song should be the high pitched beep beep beep sound a garbage truck makes when you put it in reverse.
"What's going through my mind right now is the four or five games we gave away this year," whispered Joe Horn, the receiver. "But ... we have to take responsibility for the outcome of the season ... we're 8-8 ... and, well ... it's over."
Horn stood with his chin up and his hands clasped behind his back. A cord from his iPod hung around his neck like a scarf. As he spoke, he periodically tugged on the cuff of his green silk shirt (embroidered with the name 'HOLLYWOOD') while he looked over his shoulder at the TV, hoping, it seemed, to hear a news flash about how the Rams and Jets were being called back onto the field.
I've covered Horn his entire career with the Saints -- all the way back to when memories of being out of football and working in a sofa factory in Fayetteville, North Carolina, were still fresh in his mind. Horn used to get off work at midnight; and, if he wasn't working a second shift as a dish washer, he would go over to the local high school field and run pass routes in the dark.
That was 11 years ago. Before me now stood an all-pro, a polished professional, a team leader. While the Panthers seemed to wilt under the playoff-like pressure, Horn, who finished with club records for catches (94) and yards (1,399) in 2004, seemed to thrive on it. Horn's 'tude can be dangerous, but there's no denying his talent. He's what I call dangerously talented. And so are the rest of the Saints. The same elements that drove them in the final month of the season -- cockiness, scrappiness, combustibility and unpredictability (sounds like some evil group of bizarro fairy-tale dwarfs, right?) -- are the same things that caused them to implode periodically against teams like Arizona.
They're brilliant one week. Baffling the next. Always teetering on the edge. Volatile. And that's exactly what these playoffs will be missing without the Saints.
I don't know, maybe the Falcons can be that team. Mike Vick is sick. When you consider that he's probably the best quarterback and the best running back in the game, $60 mil guaranteed starts to look like a bargain. He loves life on the edge with head-hunting linebackers buzzing around him down the middle of the field. Alge Crumpler will knock a bull-rushing end on his ear one play, then float effortlessly down the middle seam on the next. And that defense is nasty. Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman are freaks. Yeah, they could be the Drrt Brrds (no 'y' or 'i', thank you.)
Maybe the Jets could be this team. John Abraham is back. Curtis Martin seems to get better with age. No one can rally the troops like Herm Edwards. But just like there's no way to look tough while drinking from a juice box, it's impossible to be bad with a QB named Chad.
The Chargers are another possibility. LT? Antonio Gates? Donnie Edwards? You don't think he's on a mission for respect after getting snubbed for the Pro Bowl? Or this whole team, really, after being a laughingstock for so long? The Colts, meanwhile, have The Edge going one way on offense and speed-freak Dwight Freeney (and his NFL-best 16 sacks) coming at you from the other direction. They're Dangerously Talented.
Of course, so were the Saints.
As I walked back to my car after the game on Sunday, the setting sun bleeding orange across the sky, the New Orleans team bus and support vehicles roared by me on their way to the airport -- in a hurry, going nowhere. Police sirens wailed. Dust flew up from the street. And just then, I noticed the name of the rental truck company that was shipping the team back to New Orleans: TNT Moving.
That's the Saints, all right.
And as the mild-card playoffs are about to begin, I miss them already.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.