METAIRIE -When the 2009 New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, finally ending the franchise’s 42-year drought, there were lots of reasons to believe their window of opportunity was open for more to come.
The pieces were definitely in place to make another run last season with the core of their championship team returning intact - especially with Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees at quarterback and an aggressive defense that thrived on turnovers.
But as they learned, nothing is ever the same in the NFL, and their bid for another title ended on a cold, overcast day in Seattle instead of the warmth of Cowboys Stadium - the site of Super Bowl XLV.
Nobody felt it more than coach Sean Payton and Brees, who, just one year removed from that unforgettable night in Miami, worked as ESPN analysts during the week instead of getting ready for the big game.
“For all of us, there is the immediate disappointment,” Payton said this spring. “But where it truly hits you is when you’re at the Super Bowl and you’re working it. Being there, and yet not being involved in the game, was difficult.
“There’s a feeling of jealousy,” he said. “I said that on the air. I said, ?I’ll be honest with you: I’m jealous we’re not preparing right now and getting ready to play in this game having already done it.’”
After one segment, Payton made one final point to his five-time Pro Bowl quarterback.
“Drew was on the set with us, and I remember when the piece ended and I visited with him,” Payton said. “It was like, ?Hey, we got to get back here and out of these suits and ties.’”
With that, the Saints set their sights on Super Bowl XLVI.
They put the shocking and embarrassing 41-36 playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, who snuck into the playoffs with a 7-9 record, in their rearview mirror and began looking toward 2011.
“I do think the loss to Seattle, as difficult as it was, can help light a fire or fuel what we want to accomplish this upcoming season,” Payton said.
When training camp opened, Brees pointed to several things that did the Saints in last season - beginning with losing two of their three last regular-season games, which forced them to go on the road to Seattle.
“We just didn’t play well enough in the end - and the postseason,” he said. “Certainly, that leaves a taste in everyone’s mouths that we hope we can build on. We certainly have an expectation level of wanting to win championships and recognizing the challenges that go into that.”
They proved that this spring and summer.
While the owners’ 4-1/2-month lockout of players put a hold on free agency and offseason workouts for most teams, the Saints were hard at work.
Brees, in concert with Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, organized and directed six weeks of workouts that closely mirrored the things they do on the field with their coaches. While many teams had no players-only workouts, the Saints averaged almost 45 players per session.
Meanwhile, Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and the front office did their homework in preparing for the day the new collective bargaining would be agreed on and everyone could go to work.
The Saints quickly restocked their roster, re-signing 14 of their own free agents and added 10 unrestricted free agents from other teams in the first week after they could begin signing players.
They re-signed most of their core players from the team that won a franchise-record 24 regular-season games the last two seasons - a list topped by strong safety Roman Harper, tackle Jermon Bushrod, guard Carl Nicks, wide receiver Lance Moore and linebacker Scott Shanle.
Running back Pierre Thomas, the team’s leading rusher in 2008 and ‘09, and kicker Garrett Hartley were re-signed before the lockout began.
They also added more pieces to the puzzle in defensive tackles Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin, center Olin Kreutz, running back Darren Sproles, cornerback Fabian Washington and fullback Korey Hall.
The draft brought them two first-round picks in defensive end Cameron Jordan and running back Mark Ingram, who will likely get to play early.
The hopeful return to health by Thomas, who missed 10 games last season with an ankle injury, and the addition of Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, allowed the Saints to deal oft-injured running back Reggie Bush to the Miami Dolphins.
Running the football and taking it away more frequently on defense, like they did during their Super Bowl run in 2009, are the focal points for Payton going into the season.
“I think we have to run the ball more efficiently,” he said, looking at a backfield that will also include second-year pro Chris Ivory and Sproles. “That’s got to be a better part of what we do offensively as it was in ‘09.”
The Saints ranked sixth in rushing in 2009 with 131.6 yards per game, but slid to 28th last year with 94.9 yards a game as injuries to Thomas, Ivory and Bush slowed the run and put more pressure on Brees and the passing game.
The offensive line nearly returned intact for a third straight season, but center Jonathan Goodwin signed with the San Francisco 49ers.
The Saints quickly snapped up Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowl pick with the Chicago Bears, to replace Goodwin. He’ll join tackles Jermon Bushrod and Jon Stinchcomb and Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Nicks in setting the tone for the running game, and, more importantly, protecting Brees.
Most of Brees’ favorite targets return as wide receivers Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Moore are back along with up-and-coming tight end Jimmy Graham and backup David Thomas.
Defensively, the Saints finished fourth in fewest yards allowed last season, but the emphasis was on getting bigger and quicker up front to pressure the quarterback after recording just 33 sacks.
The addition of Rogers, a two-time Pro Bowler, and Franklin, the 49ers’ franchise player last year, should help in stopping the run and eating up more blockers to allow ends Will Smith, Alex Brown and Jordan to get to the passer more effectively.
Vilma, who made the Pro Bowl again last season, and Shanle lead the linebacking corps, which includes Jonathan Casillas and promising third-round draft pick Martez Wilson. Casillas, the projected weakside starter a year ago, missed the entire season with a foot injury.
In the secondary, Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter, who is coming off knee surgery, are the holdovers at cornerback, while 2010 first-round draft choice Patrick Robinson will likely be the nickel corner.
Strong safety Roman Harper, a two-time Pro Bowl pick, and free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who made a smooth transition to the position from cornerback, form a strong tandem in the back end of the secondary.
While a stronger pass rush is important, Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams know getting more takeaways is essential. After being among the league leaders in 2009 with 39 (with another eight coming in the playoffs), they had just 25 last year with only nine interceptions.
“We’ve got to take the ball away more frequently on defense, and when I say ?more frequently,’ there were some numbers in ‘09 that were really up there,” said Payton.
“We want to have those impact plays,” said Vilma. “We’re starting to build our brand over here as a top-notch defense, and when it’s crunch time, we need to make the plays.”
In the kicking game, the Saints have Hartley and punter Thomas Morstead back, but Payton would like to have a better return game as they’ve ranked near the bottom of the league in both punt and kickoff returns.
Sproles, one of the game’s more exciting return men, could fill that bill and help erase the bitter taste in their mouths that remain from last season.
“The way we ended the season adds a kind of desperation, in a sense, that we can get to where we want to get,” Greer said of the Seattle debacle. “We exited early and we know we fell short of our goals. We know that we can’t allow that to happen again. That still burns deep.”