The 2006 campaign was filled with high points for a Saints franchise that had few reasons to rejoice throughout the previous season.
Following a devastating and tumultuous 2005 season, which began in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and concluded with a 3-13 record, New Orleans was ready to make a statement.
The nation witnessed the Superdome reopen and the Saints, with a new head coach and new quarterback, confounded observers by capturing the NFC South title. New Orleanians had professional football back in their city and entertainment in an area that needed it.
Looking to improve after January's NFC Championship loss, QB Drew Brees sat down with ESPN.com only days before the start of training camp.
Graham Bensinger: There are so many different elements to this past year in New Orleans for you Overall, what's it been like?
Drew Brees: It's been a tremendous experience. The people in New Orleans are great and love their city. They've accepted my wife [Brittany] and I with open arms. There are so many great things to do: the food, the culture, the charm -- it's just been great.
Bensinger: I want to take you back to when you first came to New Orleans and had a chance to tour some of the areas ravished by Hurricane Katrina. What do you recall?
Brees: Devastation. It looked like a bomb went off. Certain areas were so damaged that you look at it now and there's still just so much work to be done. I saw a daunting task, but also saw the strength and resolve in the people of New Orleans. I knew they were going to come back. It's a process and it's going to take time, but they're going to come back better than ever.
Bensinger: What progress have you seen during your time with the Saints?
Brees: I've seen a lot of progress. It is slow, but you just have to put it in perspective. You take a look at what really happened, the devastation, and just the amount of work it takes to get it back to where it can function again. It takes a lot of planning and a lot of good leadership, and I think New Orleans is starting to figure that out.
Bensinger: Prior to the reopening of the Superdome, I toured some of the ravished areas with Joe Horn. Having talked to a number of residents and read a considerable amount about the area, one thing that seems very clear is that just because the damage is no longer leading the nightly news every evening certainly doesn't mean Louisiana is back to its pre-Katrina state. Help is still needed.
Brees: What we want to express to people is that New Orleans is back as far as the French Quarter and downtown. We want people to come to New Orleans, visit, and experience that culture and charm. It's there. On the flip side, there still is a lot of work to do and New Orleanians need help. The people need help to get their lives and homes back in order. That rebuilding process is tough and so many people are still in trailers because of all of the homes were destroyed.
Bensinger: You're an athlete who uses his celebrity to give back and do good things. Too often, you see athletes who have yet to realize the good that can be done with their stature. What would you say to them?
Brees: It's so important. As athletes, we're role models whether you like it or not. Some people accept that more than others. We have the ability to really make an impact in people's lives and there are a lot guys who take advantage of that. I just want to give to New Orleans what it has given to me.
Bensinger: The Superdome's once uncertain future is now bright. There have been nearly $210 million worth of renovations since Katrina. Some people have questioned if it's worth investing all of that money in the stadium considering it's in its 32nd year. What do you think?
Brees: I know there has been a push for a new stadium. New Orleans has been one of the greatest cities to have a Super Bowl in, and I think it always comes down to the stadium being able to host it. I think the stadium is great, but what makes it great, too, are the people inside of it. Having only played in it one year, I think the facilities are great.
Bensinger: It's September 25, 2006. Tell me about running out onto the field for the Superdome's reopening on "Monday Night Football."
Brees: It was unbelievable. It was phenomenal. I had never even set foot in the Superdome before that game so it was just an incredible experience just to feel how much those fans cared about their team and their city. It was overwhelming. It was an emotional moment and one that I'll remember forever. Hey, we won an ESPY for it! Obviously, it meant a lot to a lot of people.
Bensinger: How does that game compare to any of the other games you've played in during your collegiate or professional career?
Brees: It ranks way up there because of the meaning of it to our city. It was such a confidence boost for our team. With the city behind us and the emotions we had for each other, we felt that we could accomplish anything we wanted to during the season. That really carried through.
Bensinger: How would you assess the team's play last season?
Brees: I think we played well and were pretty consistent. The big thing for us was that we had 40-something guys that had never played in a playoff game before. The better you get, the more you play in those big situations, the more you become immune to it and are able to function even better. I thought we played very well in big games, but we can continue to get better. Hey, we fell one game short of our ultimate goal which is the Super Bowl. We know that we have work cut out for us.
Bensinger: Professional athletes are obviously the ultimate competitors. An outsider looking in would see that the Saints lost 13 games during the 2005 season and consider making it to the NFC Championship during the 2006 season a huge success. To what extent do you agree?
Brees: We accomplished a lot. We did something that the Saints organization had never done before, but we still fell short of our ultimate goal. You pat yourself on the back once or twice right at the end of the season, but then it is time to get back to work. We're not satisfied with where we finished.
Brees: It's awesome! Both of those guys are so different, but yet so productive. It's a great one-two punch.
Bensinger: And first time head coach Sean Payton?
Brees: He's awesome. We get along great. We're right on the same page all the time. We communicate a lot. We're always running through scenarios and trading thoughts. It gets to the point that once game day rolls around, we're able to almost switch places a lot of times and see inside each other.
Bensinger: What separates him from some of the other head coaches you've had?
Brees: His energy, passion for the game, competitiveness and fire. He understands the ebb and flow of a game and a season. Also, how to manage personalities in a locker room. He is so good at all of those things.
Bensinger: You ever partied with him?
Brees: (laughs) Well, at the Pro Bowl we all kind of kicked back and had a good time. It was the end of the season and we wanted to enjoy ourselves. That was fun. The coaches get that reward for being the losing team in the NFC Championship. I think we would have much rather have won and gone to the Super Bowl.
Bensinger: You're in Hawaii playing in what's supposed to be a fun event and you dislocate your non-throwing arm!
Brees: My left elbow
Bensinger: You have to be wondering what the heck is going on. Not only is it at the Pro Bowl, but you just had a rough offseason of rehab a year earlier.
Brees: Oh, I know That stunk, but that's part of the game, sometimes. It's disappointing that it happened and it was another eight weeks of rehab, but I feel stronger than ever right now and look forward to moving ahead with a healthy elbow.
Bensinger: What did you think happened when it occurred?
Brees: Well, it hurt like heck. I knew exactly what I did right when I did it. The first thing that I thought was, "Man I'm going to miss out on a bunch of golf!" That's the only thing that I thought because I knew I was going to be OK. I just knew that it was going to be a pain in the butt.
Bensinger: What, if anything, would you change about the Pro Bowl?
Brees: I wouldn't change anything. The gripe that people have is that it's five or six weeks after the season ends. Some guys haven't played for a long time and are not at their peak training level when they go out there. It's a reward. It's a tremendous honor and guys enjoy their time out there. You just hope that guys are safe.
Bensinger: How do you feel now?
Brees: It's not bothering me at all.
Bensinger: Any lasting effects?
Brees: None at all.
Bensinger: In a situation like that, how do you avoid the self-pity?
Brees: I just accepted it. Certain things just happen. Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes things are put in your life to make you stronger.
Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his Web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org