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Saints marching on

Team forging its identity on cross-country odyssey

Posted: Monday September 19, 2005 2:26AM; Updated: Monday September 19, 2005 12:31PM
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New Orleans coach Jim Haslett (center) celebrates after a season-opening victory at Carolina last week.
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SAN ANTONIO -- I love the early game tonight. Absolutely love it. I love the pomp that surely will go with it and I love the cause. I love the chance for Meadowlanders to come up very big, which I know they will do in welcoming the Gulf Coast Orphans of the Storm when the Giants and Saints meet at the very un-Monday-night time of 7:30 p.m. ET.

San Antonio is not a usual MMQB dateline. But I was there for HBO's Inside the NFL a few days ago and was fascinated. This is what I found:

A little after 7 last Wednesday morning, Jim Haslett fiddled with his Blackberry, sitting at Gregg Popovich's old desk in his Alamodome office. The Spurs used to play here and the office is well-worn. A dry-erase board on one wall has a bunch of basketball courts and the faint markings of plays drawn up by Popovich.

"I got a nice e-mail from Tom Coughlin,'' Haslett said of the Giants coach who will be on the other sideline tonight. "'Thinking of you.' How about that? He said he thought I was doing a nice job handling things. I'll tell you what I wrote him back.''

More Blackberry fiddling. "I wrote, 'I don't know what hell is, but I think I'm close to it.'"

The Saints lead the league in one category as they head into this game: conflicted emotions. Because of the catastrophe that has left so many New Orleanians without homes and jobs, they feel like they're being selfish if they talk too loudly about a schedule that has them traveling on 13 of 16 weekends this season. Because in the end the only thing that matters is their record, Haslett feels conflicted to grouse over adjusting to his fourth set of offices in the last month.

Part of Haslett wants to get up on his soapbox and wonder about the fairness of competing against teams that have to get on an airplane seven or eight times this regular season, not 13. But the other part of him -- the part that ends up winning the battle in his head -- is the part influenced by the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, who wrote to Haslett before the first game of the season and said in an impassioned way, "This is your fate, this is your mission -- to lift the spirit of these fans.''

And so then Haslett tells his team: "Guys, you're doing nothing different than you did in high school. Dress somewhere, get on a bus, practice, get on the bus again, shower, get dressed, go home. Just because you're in the NFL doesn't change a thing. It still comes down to what you do on the field.''

"You know,'' Haslett said, "the one good thing about this is that some of our guys are really growing up. This is real life hitting them. I had a player lose five dogs because he couldn't get them out of the flood in time. I've had players not be able to find family members, players and coaches who lost houses. It's been incredibly emotional, incredibly draining.''

"Do you have much of an idea how much people around the country are taking to your team?'' I said.

"I really don't,'' he said. "I'm stuck down here in my own little world, just trying to coach this team, being there for my players.''

"You'll realize it Monday night,'' I said. "I think that crowd in the Meadowlands is going to go nuts for you guys.''

Haslett and his team are not happy about having to play only three semi-real "home'' games this year, though they understand the reason for playing four games in Baton Rouge, closer to the fan base. "We've got a civic responsibility,'' general manager Mickey Loomis said, "and we recognize that. It's important to play in Louisiana.''