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News » Big Easy starting to entice free agents

Big Easy starting to entice free agents

Big Easy starting to entice free agents
INDIANAPOLIS -- We New Orleanians like to think we live in the greatest city on the planet.

With its distinct music, cuisine, architecture and culture, the Crescent City has long been recognized as a world-renowned destination for fun-loving tourists. But for NFL free agents? Not so much.

For years, New Orleans was something of a last resort for free-agent Football players. When considering their options, a franchise that took more than three decades to win its first playoff game hardly topped the list. And the organization's reputation as a poorly run, penny-pinching boondock preceded itself. Only the most desperate -- or money-hungry -- free agents applied. In bidding wars, the Saints usually had to overpay. (See: Wally Williams and Wayne Gandy.)

The situation went from bad to worse after Hurricane Katrina. Saints officials had to convince players and coaches of the club's ability to win, plus they had to sell them on the viability, livability and sustainability of the city -- when even they weren't convinced of it. Safe to say, no other organization faced such a challenge.

Saints Coach Sean Payton remembers the January day three years ago when he flew to New Orleans to accept the Saints job. It was two days after Mayor Ray Nagin's infamous Chocolate City speech.

"I was like, 'Where are we going, what's going on?' " Payton said. "The trip from the airport was . . . you wanted to go home. You were coming in, and everybody else was leaving."

The uncertainty of the city's post-Katrina recovery scared off some assistant coaches the Saints tried to hire in 2006. It also forced their hand in the sweepstakes for Drew Brees. The Saints offered significantly more money than Miami, and they wined and dined Brees with shameless pomp.

Thankfully, those days appear to be over. The Saints haven't reached the exalted air of the New England Patriots, but they have earned a reputation around the league as one of the best spots to play and coach for a living.

Exhibit A: Gregg Williams. The defensive coordinator was arguably the most sought-after assistant coach on the market this offseason, yet he chose the Saints over a bevy of suitors, including Green Bay, Tennessee and Houston. Ditto defensive line coach Bill Johnson.

"I think we're removed from that," Payton said of the Katrina cloud. "We've got a good locker room, but more importantly, it's a place that's attractive to players and to coaches. Gregg had an opportunity to go to a few other teams, and he fit with us. Bill Johnson chooses New Orleans. I don't know that that happens three years ago."

The litmus test of the image overhaul will come next week when the Saints dive into Free Agency. The Saints are counting on intangibles, such as culture and atmosphere, in the pursuit of free agent linebacker Jon Vilma.

Vilma is clearly the Saints' top target. He's going to hit the market as one of the top 10 available players in the pool. He's the rarest of free agent commodities: a productive, reliable player in his prime.

The Saints desperately want him to captain their defense next season. So, too, do a number of other teams.

New Orleans hopes its edge will be the positive environment they've created in the locker room and the attractive lifestyle Vilma enjoyed living last season in the Warehouse District.

"After you've been in this long enough as a coach or a player, you recognize that all these places are not the same," Payton said. "Some of them are better than others. That's our job as an organization to create that environment that makes it possible for us to sign a player in Free Agency, to sign a Gregg Williams, to sign a coach, someone in the front office that has competition with other organizations in our league. They come because they've heard, they know. And that's a big thing."

The Saints have what is known in Football jargon as "a good locker room." That means they don't have a lot of chemistry or character issues, Jeremy Shockey's quirkiness notwithstanding.

Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis credited Payton for creating the positive environment. Payton credited the leadership of veterans such as Brees, Will Smith and Scott Fujita for setting the tone among the players.

"Our job as coaches is to be able to create an environment where players and coaches say, 'Hey, this is a special place; this is a special locker room,' " Payton said. "I think people see us differently. There's not a lot of secrets in this league. It's a small fraternity. Very quickly people have a good read as to who's doing what and how they are operating. Hopefully, people feel like we're doing things the right way."

We're going to find out if Vilma thinks that way in the next week or so.

. . . . . . .

Jeff Duncan can be reached at jduncan@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3404.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: February 22, 2009

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Channing Crowder Name: Channing Crowder
Position: LB
Age: 24
Experience: 4 years
College: Florida
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