METAIRIE, La. -- Some showed up at 4:45 a.m.
An hour later, early-bird Who Dats with a morning to kill before they were admitted into Saturday's open minicamp practice had formed a line that snaked round the outdoor practice field fences. Eventually, the sun joined them.
If the hundreds gathered to watch no-pad drills confirmed anything, it's that the chicken soup story of the 2006 New Orleans Saints -- the vagabond franchise turned civic savior of a tattered region -- still has shelf life in an area where Hurricane Katrina's thumbprints are sadly visible 21 months after landfall.
Spray-painted X's from search crews dot neighborhoods ranging from abandoned to affluent. The New Orleans Centre, a shopping mall/food court/tailgating hangout attached to the Louisiana Superdome, is vacant. Even on Airline Drive, the main thoroughfare outside the Saints' suburban facility, there are open businesses that haven't replaced shop signs blown out from Katrina.
But while the forever-altered backdrop remains and the community gladly welcomes distractions, the circumstances surrounding this Saints season are completely different. For one, there are expectations -- a relatively foreign concept around these parts. The Saints are a Monday night fixture, a trendy Super Bowl pick headlined by a few endorsement darlings. And true, the Cinderella buzz of last year hasn't totally subsided, but expecting to replicate that same emotional energy isn't realistic, either.
Coin tosses probably won't be conducted by former presidents. Bono isn't performing another Week 3 pregame concert. Karma already paid back its long overdue debt, beginning when the Dolphins chose to roll the dice on Daunte Culpepper's knee rather than Drew Brees' shoulder in free agency.
"Nothing is promised to us this year," Brees said. "We have to go out and re-earn it all over again. We have to re-earn everyone's respect. That's always tough because human nature would tell you otherwise."
Conversely, some Saints players believe the transcendence of their story overshadowed the legitimacy of last season's accomplishments, arguing there's enough talent assembled to counterbalance any cosmic ebb that might occur after so much good fortune.
"How many fairy tales are actually true? None of them," defensive end Charles Grant said. "This was real. This wasn't a fairy tale. [Experts] gave us six games, maybe eight games. But hey, these boys went out and won 10 games last year Man, we got everybody back and we have a legit shot of getting where we need to be. Like coach [Sean Payton] said, it's time to put things in the bank."
Of course, given the Saints' relatively mundane offseason compared to those of other teams that played in late January, it's not surprising that talk of the theoretical -- things like figurative bull's-eyes and permanently transforming the Saints' traditional losing ethos -- dominated the minicamp conversation. Yeah, there's been some movement. Joe Horn, the Saints' longtime third-person locker room spokesman, left for Atlanta. Free agents Brian Simmons, Jason David and Eric Johnson should immediately contribute and, sure, David Patten has a puncher's chance at landing the No. 2 wideout position, but those transactions are nowhere near as juicy as the Patriots' additions, the Colts' departures or the Bears' melodramas involving Tank Johnson and Lance Briggs.
Man, we got everybody back and we have a legit shot of getting where we need to be. Like coach [Sean Payton] said, it's time to put things in the bank.
Somewhat incredibly, the Saints maintained a level of stability seldom witnessed in the fluid nature of the league. Position battles should be scarce considering 21 of 22 starters return. There are no imminent contract issues, no likely holdouts. This minicamp Brees actually threw passes, something his surgically repaired right shoulder prevented him from doing last year, and showed no noticeable discomfort after suffering a dislocated left elbow in the Pro Bowl.
Because of that, defensive tackle Hollis Thomas says the only great unknown between now and chapter two is how the Saints handle the attention and pressure inherent with this newfound stature. "We're a barometer, now," he said, a league-wide measuring stick much like the Eagles were during his stay in Philadelphia. Asked whether he could convey or teach the intricacies of a winner's mentality to his younger teammates, Thomas laughed and said, "There's no science to it."
"You always want to create that winning attitude and that culture of belief and faith," Brees said. "And how do you breed that? You breed that through the way you work together during the offseason and what you do on the field during minicamps, training camp. And it's about having the right people, too. And I know we have the right people."
Which is why running back Deuce McAllister hesitates to talk about the 2001 season, reluctant to draw parallels between then and now, explaining "each team is going to be different there's things you can take from it preparationwise but there's not anything you can say, 'OK, this is going to occur because this is what happened six years ago.'" Unfortunately, given the Saints' morbid history, it's the only reference point available to gauge how this franchise handles success.
The 2001 Saints (like this year's team) had expectations, too. Fresh off a playoff win, the Saints featured reigning NFL Coach of the Year Jim Haslett (like Payton) and supposed franchise quarterback Aaron Brooks (like Brees). What transpired was a bizarre 7-9 campaign set to a bad soap opera plot -- whether it was suspending wide receiver Albert Connell for stealing money from McAllister's locker or Kyle Turley's discus-style helmet toss in a Sunday night meltdown against the Jets. The eventual fallout from that season included the Ricky Williams trade to Miami and the unexpected firing of general manager Randy Mueller in May 2002.
"This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. I think that's proven every year," said Brees, who shared the same burden of success in 2005 when the Chargers failed to make the playoffs after posting 12 wins the previous season.
"One year a coach gets an extension because he had a great year and then the next year he has a bad year and gets fired," Brees continued. "The same with starting quarterbacks. One year you make the Pro Bowl, next year they're talking about replacing you. That is the way this league goes, so each year you always have to re-prove yourself."
W.D. Kalec is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.