Monday, February 8, 2010

Fat Sunday

We interrupt the regularly scheduled joyous hysteria visiting New Orleans on Fat Tuesday with an early bulletin: The New Orleans Saints — a team and a collective metaphor for the city it represents — won Super Bowl XLIV tonight.

That’s not a dispatch from the bizzarro world, as anyone who’s watched this spirited, inspired, talented team win and win and win all season already knows. It was the realest of real deals: 44 days after Christmas, 44 years after the Saints organization was first awarded an NFL franchise, the former whipping boy of the NFL won Super Bowl No. 44, defeating the Indianapolis Colts 31-17.

Fat Tuesday, Feb. 16, was already on the city’s calendar. You can call tonight Fat Sunday. Laissez les bon temps roulez, tout de suite.

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In a game that had analysts quietly licking their chops at the prospect of coronating Colts quarterback Peyton Manning as Perhaps the Greatest QB of All Time, the Saints spoiled the Colts party with one of their own.

Saints QB Drew Brees mixed it up the hard way, battling back despite an early 10-0 deficit, grinding it out play after play. The Saints combined dogged but spirited offense with opportunistic defense and Garrett Hartley, a field-goal kicker whose points after seemed almost laser-guided.

Saints head coach Sean Payton, who combined undeniable coaching skills with the guts of a burglar and the soul of a riverboat gambler, took risks in different ways throughout the game. Using everything from a smart (and successful) coach’s challenge to a timely reverse to the very act of gambling on Brees (who underwent shoulder surgery after the 2005 season) in the first place, Payton proved he wouldn’t play by the books.

It was most obvious tonight when the Saints, scoring a Hartley field goal in the second quarter to trail 10-6, started the second half with an onside kick.

A pre-fourth quarter onside kick, in the Super Bowl. Find that in the damn playbook. Who pulls shit like that? Payton’s crew does, and the Indianapolis Colts (anticipating the deep kick for a runback) were every bit as surprised as the TV analysts and the crowd at Florida’s SunLife Stadium. The Saints recovered the ball and started the second half of the game with a quick touchdown, and a serious shot to the psyche of the Colts. ESPN said it was the first successfully completed onside kick before the fourth quarter in Super Bowl history.

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Manning was off his feed much of the night; at times on the sidelines he seemed sullen, rattled and maybe even angry. And the Colts as a team were less than the sum of their well-oiled machine parts. The feared Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney spent much of the fourth quarter sidelined, nursing a still-healing torn ligament in his right ankle, offering himself as a testing aid to the trainers who practiced their taping skills on that ankle the rest of the game.

Little by little the tide turned and stayed turned. Hartley makes another field goal from deep space. Brees hits Jeremy Shockey for a TD that gives them the lead. Payton, bold again, successfully challenges the ruling that Lance Moore had not scored on the 2-point conversion. Saints 24-17.

Meanwhile, Colts kicker Matt Stover misses one from 51 yards out. Colts receiver Pierre Garcon drops a pass; later Garcon was called for offensive pass interference. In the aggregate, the Colts played a decent game, despite some key mistakes that on the whole weren’t more than any other team might post on any given Sunday.

But this was The Super Bowl. The Indianapolis Colts, who had posted stellar numbers all season en route to the best win-loss record in the NFL, had been playing like supermen. They picked the wrong game to turn into mere mortals.

It was all distilled in the last three minutes of the game. Down 24-17, Manning and the Colts mounted a feverish last-minute drive. Manning makes a short pass across the middle, a throw intended for Reggie Wayne. Not today. Looking for the main chance, Saints defensive back Tracy Porter intercepts the pass, and returns it 75 yards for a touchdown.

Game, set, match, title, party.

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It was hard not to be torn by deep, emotional — and, yeah, racial — affinities either way you placed your bets. You wanted to side with Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, one of only five rookie head coaches to reach the Super Bowl, and one of only three African American coaches (Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith are the others) to get to the big show.

But this year the stakes were bigger than victory for a team, more so than in any other Super Bowl in recent memory. What was at stake for New Orleans was its sense of itself, its idea of the possible four and a half years after the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

In the days and weeks that followed the worst domestic meteorological event of our time, many people had written off New Orleans, came to the conclusion that the city couldn’t be saved, that its days as a major port and arterial for commerce, source of a proud gumbo of varied cultures and maverick traditions, and the birthplace of jazz were numbered.

Indianapolis wanted this victory. New Orleans needed it like a body needs a soul, and the Saints knew it. “We didn’t just win for ourselves,” the Saints’ Jonathan Vilma told ESPN, echoing what others on the team had said. “We won for the whole city of New Orleans.”

And not to belabor the racial angle, but the Saints win was a definite, undeniable jolt to the psyche of African Americans throughout the country. The ways that a proud, capable, resilient, once-and-future predominantly black American city could be seemingly on the brink of extinction and battle back not just to survive but to dominate is nothing less than a distillation of the story of black Americans.

In a time of black unemployment rates almost twice the national average, in a period in which black families face foreclosure more often and more quickly than others, the Saints achievement is an emotionally anodyne event.

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Maybe the Saints just got tired of the whisper campaigns. There was a sense that some people, maybe even a lot of people, had dismissed the Saints chances to win this thing before the game even started. It wasn’t the fact that Manning’s parents and younger brother Eli were in one of the boxes watching the game, ready to celebrate Peyton’s investiture. That was a family thing, and the Manning family roots extend deep into New Orleans’ history (patriarch Archie Manning used to be the Saints QB).

It was … other things. The betting line was against the Saints. Before the game, the oddsmakers at online super-sportsbook had the Colts as four-point favorites; that was pretty much the spread from almost the moment the Saints beat the Vikings two weeks earlier. The Sporting News had anointed the Colts before the fact.

Hell, even the apes got into the act: On Friday, Kutai, an orangutan at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, picked the Colts to win at the zoo’s yearly football forecast event, on the basis of T-shirt selection. The zoo said the Kutai Sports Book was 4 for 5 in earlier Super Bowl picks.

And then there’s Fuel, the new multigrain cereal spinoff of the Wheaties brand, with an initial packaging run that includes the pictures of athletes on the box, including Kevin Garnett, Albert Pujols and … Peyton Manning. It’s the fruition of an ad campaign that started months ago, an ad campaign that apparently never considered the idea that Drew Brees might be one of the faces of the new breakfast of champions.

The good folks at General Mills might want to add a Saint to that whole-grain pantheon right about now.

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But all that’s, well, water under the bridge. New Orleans was a city that needed a psychic shot in the arm as much as anything else. It got that voodoo vaccination tonight, winning a contest — our national contest — whose outcome really wasn’t as close as the score suggests. “New Orleans is back,” Saints owner Tom Benson said, and who’d disagree?

Speaking of which: As a team in a city deeply animated by music, maybe the Saints got a high-sign from the band that played the halftime show. The Who, that enduring British band of the 60’s, played one of its classics, “Who Are You,” whose title is just another way of invoking the Saints’ rallying cry: “Who dat?”

In the annals of professional football, like in every other part of our vast cultural weave, we know good and damn well Who Dat is now.

Image credits: Saints 2009 schedule: Via Stats LLC. Saints logo: New Orleans Saints/National Football League. Jim Caldwell: Donald Miralle/Getty Images. Wheaties Fuel box: via

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