Saints better realize the party is over
The post-Super Bowl festivities have ended. The Drew Brees-led Mardi Gras floats are in storage. Fat Tuesday has come and gone.
It's now time to rain on the parade.
Mind you, I have no problem with the prolonged city-wide celebration following New Orleans' first NFL title. Saints fans had waited 42 seasons for a Super Bowl appearance, let alone a Lombardi Trophy. The franchise provided hope in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. A special relationship was formed. Laissez les bon temps roulez.
But as the good times kept rolling -- and rolling and rolling -- for 10 days of Bourbon Street boozing through Ash Wednesday, it became apparent that New Orleans coach Sean Payton will soon be dealing with a Superdome-sized hangover.
Being the defending champion is hard enough because of the target now placed squarely on the Saints' jerseys. The offseason is also shorter. But Payton faces another challenge almost as daunting as upsetting Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV: Getting his team to focus on repeating while so many of those around it will be reveling in the past.
Whether they like it or not, life has changed for every Saints player. They are now more recognizable, especially those who made a name for themselves in the postseason like cornerback Tracy Porter. More off-field demands will be placed on their time. With free dinners and drinks from well-wishers a given, the temptations in a city full of them will be greater than ever before.
Those distractions can help derail a Super Bowl champ before training camp even begins. For example, two key Pittsburgh players told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the 2006 Steelers entered the season too fat and happy after winning Super Bowl XL the previous year.
"It's natural when you win it all to relax and let your guard down," said linebacker James Farrior, whose team didn't make the playoffs that season. "We did that a little bit too much."
Added fellow linebacker James Harrison: "We soaked in it too long."
Only one franchise in the past decade (New England) defended its Super Bowl crown. Derrick Brooks was on one of the squads that didn't. The future Hall of Fame linebacker starred for Tampa Bay when the 2002 Buccaneers won Super Bowl XXXVII. The next season, Tampa Bay slid to 7-9 despite returning almost all of its starters.
"We didn't come back the same team," Brooks said during a Tuesday show we hosted together on Sirius NFL Radio. "On paper, we were. But mentally, we never made that adjustment throughout the season to realize that we were a different ball club. We just couldn't turn on a switch and be the Super Bowl champions."
Outside influences aren't the only thing that can torpedo a Super Bowl victor. Like in Tampa Bay, priorities for some Saints players will change. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told FOXSports.com in October that he knows some of his roster wasn't happy with their contract status but "they've been able to put all that behind for what's good for the team."
The same spirit of camaraderie won't be so easy to foster in 2010. With one Super Bowl ring secured, winning a second for some Saints won't be as high a priority as getting paid. That jackpot isn't going to come for everyone even without an NFL salary cap. New Orleans has 30 players set to become free agents (restricted and unrestricted), plus team management has talked about signing quarterback Drew Brees to a new contract.
Not that the Saints can't overcome these obstacles much like the franchise and city itself rose after Katrina. New Orleans will keep most of the same talent from a squad that finished 16-3. Brees is a strong enough leader to help the 2010 Saints keep their focus. Payton also is still hungry. He was already talking about Super Bowl XLV just hours after the French Quarter was filled with those Saints fans ecstatic about claiming just one title.
"The city is going to hold onto this," Brooks said. "They should. But the players are obligated to put the past in the past and get ready to take on the 2010 season."
Otherwise, the party will truly be over for everyone.