Saints begin today

Published 11:02 pm Saturday, September 9, 2006

New Orleans is slowly being revived and rebuilt, and like their beloved and battered city, so are the Saints.

The principle architect, engineer, foreman and top laborer for the Big Easy’s NFL franchise could all be the same man.

Reggie Bush has grand plans for his pro football career. On Sunday, he’ll begin putting them in motion.

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The Heisman Trophy winner makes his pro debut as the Saints open the 2006 season against the Cleveland Browns, a team trying to restore its own proud history as it celebrates 60 years of existence.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction a year ago, along came Bush, Southern California’s do-it-all-quickly tailback who seemed to score a touchdown for the Trojans every time he got his hands on the football.

When the Houston Texans surprisingly decided to draft defensive end Mario Williams with the No. 1 overall pick, Bush fell to the Saints.

“The fans were excited when he was available,” said Saints first-year coach Sean Payton. “He brought a little more to the table. And for this town, it couldn’t be better.”

Bush’s arrival brought needed hope to the flood-ravaged Gulf Region and its passionate sports fans. For a while, it appeared the Saints might leave Louisiana for good, but team owner Tom Benson said earlier this week that 65,000 season tickets have been sold for the refurbished Superdome.

Team officials cited several factors, including lower prices and the recovery of certain areas. However, the single biggest factor could be Bush, whose No. 25 jersey was the NFL’s top seller through July.

New Orleans has embraced Bush like one of its own, and the 21-year-old has returned the love.

Along with Pepsi, he launched a program to build new homes. He donated more than $50,000 from his shoe contract with Adidas to assist a special needs school, and Bush dropped another $86,000 for an artificial turf field where several New Orleans-area high schools play.

On Tuesday, he and some of his teammates distributed food to the needy.

Now, Bush is ready to aid the city’s healing process with his work between the goalposts and hash marks.

“I’m pretty relaxed and feel well prepared for this more than I was at that stage when I was a freshman playing my first game at Auburn,” Bush said. “I feel more prepared and a lot smarter. I am obviously looking to dominate and be effective and help my team win games.”

On HBO’s “Costas Now” this week, Bush said he wants to be “what Michael Jordan was to the NBA. I want to be that to the NFL.”

Judging by his performance in the preseason, he’s got a long way to go to reach that lofty goal. At times, he looked like the same breakaway threat who scored eight TDs in his first peewee game as a kid. At other times, he played like, well, any ordinary NFL rookie — lost and confused.

The Browns expect the Saints to use Bush in a variety of formations, and Payton plans to have him return punts.

“We’re getting ready for him to be anywhere and everywhere,” Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel said. “We know they are going to try and get him the ball. We cannot focus totally on Reggie. We also have to focus on Deuce McAllister, who has played in this league before. They have Joe Horn, who is an excellent wide receiver, and an experienced quarterback in Drew Brees.

“They have other guys who can play the game. We have to be ready for everybody.”

While Bush’s first game has dominated the pregame hype, the Browns will welcome back tight end Kellen Winslow and wide receiver Braylon Edwards, two former first-round picks both returning from injuries.

Winslow hasn’t played since the second game of his rookie season. He missed all of 2005 following a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Edwards tore a knee ligament last December, and wasn’t expected to be playing until mid-October.

They’ll be on the field together in the regular season for the first time, giving second-year quarterback Charlie Frye two bona fide game-altering targets. The Browns scored a league-low 132 points a year ago, a number that should rise significantly as long as Winslow and Edwards stay healthy.

Their time away has given Winslow and Edwards, two fabulous athletes, a greater sense of gratitude.

“They appreciate the fact, particularly Kellen, that he can go out and play the game,” Crennel said. “It’s been almost two years, and he almost lost his life. That sobers you a little bit when you look at your life and your career.”