Saints continue on amazing march

NEW ORLEANS -- The white convex roof of the Louisiana Superdome -- fractured by the lashing wind and water of Hurricane Katrina -- is whole again.

You can see it on this balmy, drizzling January day, hovering above the still-recovering city. Sixteen months ago, the home of the New Orleans Saints, an island floating in the surge of Lake Pontchartrain, became the enduring symbol of shelter from the lethal storm. Today, a yawning sign hangs on the side:

Our Home
Our Team
Be A Saint

There is still plywood in place of glass in some storefronts on sprawling Canal Street, chunks missing from art-deco building facades. Yet hope is tangible in the black-and-gold "We Believe" signs posted all over in the French Quarter and the Saints flags that fly from the porches of the stately mansions in the Garden District.

After a cathartic (and, in retrospect, predictable) 3-13 season that featured "home" games in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge and the Alamodome, team meetings in the San Antonio Convention Center and practices at a nearby high school facility, the Saints have rediscovered their true home. Drive about 15 minutes northwest of the city on Airline Drive, turn left when you see the New Orleans Zephyrs' stadium, walk past the ticket office in the lobby of the Saints' rebuilt facility, take two quick turns and you're in the locker room.

Michael Lewis, the feisty little kick returner who was born in New Orleans, sits in front of his stall and touches his heart.

"The city believes," Lewis says, with feeling, "because we believe."

It's really that simple.

Amid 40 seasons largely fraught with frustration, the Saints find themselves in the playoffs for only the sixth time. They have a single postseason victory -- a 31-28 wild-card victory over the St. Louis Rams in December 2000. But with a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Saturday night's divisional playoff game, the Saints would march into the NFC championship game, a new threshold for this historically struggling franchise.

"When you can win one football game, and you're playing for the NFC championship..." wide receiver Joe Horn said, savoring the sound of it. "For the Saints, after all we've been through all these years ... Man ..."

The Saints are the feel-good story of this season's NFL. They have -- pick your favorite uplifting phrase -- revitalized/rejuvenated a battered/beaten city's spirit/psyche. But beyond that warm glow everyone is feeling, there was some frankly brutal work to be done. Sean Payton, hired as head coach 51 weeks ago, was the man who insisted the players hold themselves to a higher standard. He was the much-needed bad cop and, it turns out, a great coach.

Ask the longtime veterans -- there are startlingly few left on the roster -- about Payton's impact and their first reaction is an almost unconscious grimace. In the lighthearted moments that followed an early practice last Friday, several players actually rolled their eyes when the subject of the breakaway choice for NFL Coach of the Year was broached.

"He ran our asses off," said running back Deuce McAllister.

Coming from McAllister, whose given name is Dulymus Jenod, this is saying something. He cleared 1,000 yards rushing for the fourth time in a six-year career.

"The first month was tough," McAllister added. "Really tough."

"Listen, everyone has made sacrifices for this team -- because that's what we are. Coach Payton called me into his office before the season and asked me if I was ready to make the commitment to be a New Orleans Saint. I said, 'Yes.'"
Joe Horn, Saints WR

The combination of a disjointed and dislocated season on the road and the presence of Jim Haslett, a head coach who played nine seasons in the NFL and might have been more lenient toward the players than some, the Saints were out of shape. Payton elected to move training camp to Jackson, Miss., where the heat index for the two daily practices sometimes soared into triple digits.

By the time the regular season began, there were 27 new players -- more than half the roster. Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis focused less on pure athletic ability and more on character. They wanted players that could believe in the concept of team.

Last year, quarterback Aaron Brooks and wide receiver Donte' Stallworth were the Saints' leading throw-and-catch tandem. This year they played for the Raiders and Eagles, respectively. Their effective replacements -- Drew Brees, who signed as a free agent from San Diego, and seventh-round draft choice Marques Colston -- more than statistically compensated for their loss.

Brees made a big point of reaching out to the community and bought a house in New Orleans. He led the league with 4,418 passing yards and threw for 26 touchdowns as the second-place vote-getter behind former Chargers teammate LaDainian Tomlinson in the MVP race. Colston, a revelation from Hofstra, caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and finished second in the offensive rookie of the year voting.

In some ways, Horn, who is questionable for Saturday's game with a groin injury, has come to symbolize this scrappy franchise. He played two seasons at Itawamba Junior College in Fulton, Miss., then spent 1993 washing dishes and working in a furniture factory to support his family. He started exactly two games in four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and joined the Saints in 2000. In seven seasons, Horn has caught 523 passes for 7,622 yards and 50 touchdowns.

He turns 35 next week.

"Listen," Horn said, "everyone has made sacrifices for this team -- because that's what we are. Coach Payton called me into his office before the season and asked me if I was ready to make the commitment to be a New Orleans Saint. I said, 'Yes.'

"I made four Pro Bowls weighing 209 pounds. Guess how much I weigh now?"

Horn pauses for effect.

"202," he says, smiling.

Payton's basic philosophy can be seen in the many signs that hang in and around the Saints' locker room:

Ability is critical, but dependability is critical

A few bad character guys ruin even the best of teams

Individuals play the game. Teams win championships.

Payton admits he borrowed the idea from Bill Parcells, under whom he served as the Dallas Cowboys' assistant head coach previously.

"It's nothing new," Payton shrugged.

But when the message is imparted consistently, with passion and force, it can feel fresh and, ultimately, become a reality. And, despite the drastic offseason turnover, this Saints group feels like a team.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.