Moments after the Saints' team plane touched down at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport last Sunday, a familiar message was delivered onboard over the loudspeaker.
Welcome back to New Orleans.
Sometimes you can hear claps or a few cheers from travelers when the announcement is made that you've arrived at your destination. In this instance, though, the entire plane just erupted. The Saints had returned home after a month away from New Orleans.
Saints players and staff had evacuated their home city, like so many other residents in the region, as Hurricane Ida approached. The team left on Aug. 28 for the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. They lived in hotels, some players and coaches in a room with their families, others apart from their families for the month-long stay. The work hours were long, starting with 7 a.m. meetings and finishing the day around 7:30 p.m., including the 45-minute commute to and from practice at the TCU campus. They spent their nights bonding over dinners. Position groups would give their food reviews of local spots to other position groups, then swap restaurants the next night.
The situation did allow for players to really connect, meeting and spending extended time with their teammates' families, something that would not have happened under normal circumstances.
"Hell of an experience packing up and leaving and being nomads for a little bit," Saints WR Marquez Callaway told me over the phone this week. "I think we bonded a lot. Even though a lot of guys were ready to go home, it brought a lot of guys together and it was good."
On top of opening the season with what amounted to a month-long road trip, the Saints were without eight coaches in Week 2 due to positive COVID-19 tests. The team also watched from afar as part of the roof at the Caesars Superdome caught fire on Sept. 21. Players saw it and thought to themselves are we ever going to get home?
"I think if you see anything like a pendulum, you have to think, we got some good stuff coming," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins told me with a laugh of near disbelief. "The fun thing about this team and being around all of this, there hasn't been a lot of conversation about it. Nobody feels like it's something that is impeding our ability to have success. I mean, it's annoying. Guys want to be home and not on the road. But nobody is looking at it like it should change our expectations on Sundays, which is hard to do that in our league. That's what I'm excited about because nobody has flinched. When momentum does swing back to our side and we get that stretch where things are just normal, I'm excited to see how we perform."
After the Saints deplaned Sunday night, many members of the team began assessing the damage, something so many other area residents are all too familiar with doing when they return home after a storm. Head coach Sean Payton was in his first year with the team when it returned from being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He wanted to make sure everything was as close to normal as possible before returning the team to the city this week. Fortunately, most of the damage to the homes of members of the organization was minor: fences pulled up, roofs in need of repair, mold growing inside of houses.
This past Wednesday, as the team began its preparation for Sunday's game against the Giants, the practice had a feel unlike the ones that have preceded it this season, according to players I spoke with. Being back on their own practice fields, in their own facility, brought a new energy. Players are trying to prepare themselves for what to expect on Sunday at the Superdome. It'll be 637 days since the last time the Saints played in front of a full-capacity crowd in their city. It's already known as one of the toughest places to play for visiting teams. The noise from fans has been known to reach well over 100 decibels.
"I think (Payton's) trying to simulate it in practice with the crowd noise," Callaway said. "But from what I've heard, from coaches, this crowd ... be prepared. They are going to be hyped. Be ready. The hurricane, the first home game after COVID (capacity restrictions) and the crazy start of the season for us. I know the fans are going to be there. I know the city is going to be there. I can't imagine how it's going to be."
While Payton has made it as loud as possible at practice, players have admitted nothing compares to the actual crowd noise. Thus far, it sounds like the coach hasn't spoken much to the team about what this game means to the city and how fans might react Sunday when the team takes the field -- or has to make a big third-down stop on defense.
"(Payton) hasn't talked about it as much," Jenkins told me. "That narrative has come from the players. We feel very attached to the city. It's not only what we're going through moving to Dallas, we also understand that there are people that have lost everything. We know what it meant the last time a big storm hit the season and how they leaned on the way we performed to find some kind of normalcy. Some kind of joy. So we know that that is on our back and we actually enjoy that. It gives us extra motivation to show up each week. Every game means something, which it does, but it means something a little bit more."
"I know the city is looking forward to us winning," Callaway said. "That's what we try to play for. Demario (Davis) said it in his speech. That the team really needs to take notice now with all this going on and everything that is happening to our city, everyone is still watching us. Looking forward to us brightening their day. They'll have our backs win or lose, even though they want to win. Who doesn't? That's what we play for. We play for each other and we play for this city."
The Superdome is slated to host a memorable environment Sunday and throughout the rest of the season. A football team is reprising a past role in the community, providing fans a distraction from hardship for at least a few hours. The game in Foxborough isn't the only highly anticipated homecoming this Sunday.