The Bucs had reason to celebrate at the end of their last visit to the Superdome, but they may have to overcome a supercharged crowd this weekend to make it two in a row
When the New Orleans Saints announced on Tuesday that they would continue as originally scheduled with their 2008 home opener on Sunday, it was the news everybody wanted to hear.
"Everybody" even included the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team that hopes to spoil the party that many expect to break out in the Superdome on Sunday.
Had Hurricane Gustav succeeded in keeping the Saints away from their home field on Sunday, the Buccaneers might have found themselves playing at home on Sunday, or at least at a location without the same emotional cachet for the Saints or the same crushing decibel levels as the Superdome.
But this is not an issue of competitive advantages. That the Saints will be playing at home on Sunday means the Superdome – and, more importantly, the entire city of New Orleans – escaped any terrible repercussions from Gustav's near hit. The memories of Hurricane Katrina and its chilling effects in 2005 are still very fresh in everyone's minds.
"I'm just thankful, as I'm sure [everyone is] too, that the storm didn't go through there," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I'm sure there were some people that were hit hard and my prayers go out to people like that that are helpless in those situations. It's just good fortune for New Orleans that it didn't hit there again, and it's good fortune for us, too."
Most of the city's population was evacuated before Gustav's scheduled arrival, and it is only at the end of the week that the evacuees are returning. The Saints, who had flown to Indianapolis to practice during the week, had to collaborate with state and local officials as well as with Superdome officials to make sure that the stadium was available, safe and ready to host and staff the game.
"There were a number of critical issues that needed to be addressed before we could make this announcement," said Saints Owner Tom Benson in a release by the NFL on Tuesday. "We have been assured by Superdome officials that the stadium is ready to host our fans and our team for a sold out game this Sunday and we have been assured by our political leaders that we have their support in making this happen."
The Saints obviously expect the vast majority of the sold-out crowd to show up on Sunday, and the city's relief could translate into a charged atmosphere much like New Orleans' Monday night win over Atlanta in Week Three of the 2006 season. That was the Saints' first game back in the Superdome after they spent 2005 on the road while the damages from Katrina were being repaired, and the home team dominated the Falcons in a 23-3 victory.
This Sunday's game could be the same sort of milestone game for the team and its fans. The Buccaneers hope to overcome that emotional charge, but they don't begrudge the Saints nor their rooters their excitement.
"I think it's great for that city," said running back Earnest Graham. "They're really rallying around the football team right now and they need that. For us to kick the season off in New Orleans is a big deal. It's a big deal for the country. I'm definitely excited to over there and play them. They're happy that they still have the opportunity to play in New Orleans for our first game."
Center Jeff Faine, who will make his regular-season debut as a Buccaneer on Sunday, was a part of that 2006 Saints team that rose from the ashes of a lost 2005 campaign to storm to the division title. He said that this year's opener is not likely to match the drama of that '06 Monday nighter, but he still expects there to be a higher level of energy in the dome.
"This is a totally different deal, but there is definitely going to be some of that feeling, I think, for the fans and the team," said Faine. "You've got the whole population of New Orleans basically coming back for this game. I think we're going to feel it. There's definitely going to be some energy there. It's something we've just got to prepare for."
Can the Saints follow Gustav with the same sort of comeback season that helped the city rebound from Katrina? That remains to be seen, but at the very least they expect to put on a good show on Sunday in New Orleans.
"We will once again showcase to a national audience that the city of New Orleans is made up of resilient people and that we are ready to stand our city back up as quickly as possible, put this storm behind us and move on with our lives," said Benson.
The Buccaneers, like the rest of the nation, are thrilled that the citizens of New Orleans – including the Saints and their fans – can do just that. As for potential of a supercharged, super-loud atmosphere in the Superdome, it's a welcome test for the defending division champs.
"We want to do really good things," said Gruden. "To do that, you've got to go on the road and you've got to be able to come up with some wins. This will be a stiff challenge, a great opponent, a lively atmosphere and hopefully it brings out the best in us.
"It's going to be loud regardless of the circumstances, but they have a lot of reasons to rejoice in New Orleans right now. They have a great city that's coming back strong and they've got a good football team."