Not again: How the Saints are preparing for hurricane aftermath
There is a 10-foot SAINTS EDGE sign unfurled on the second floor of the Conrad Indianapolis Hotel -- the Saints' headquarters for Week 1 of the NFL season after the team was forced to relocate because of Hurricane Gustav. That's coach Sean Payton's theme for the year; everything the Saints do, they're doing to get an edge on the competition this year. And in a strange, it-can-only-happen-in-sports kind of way, migrating 820 miles north to make final preparations for the season might actually give the Saints an advantage heading into Sunday's season-opener with the visiting Bucs.
The team is sequestered from the fervor that normally surrounds the opening of a season. It's football, football, football, with no demands for tickets, no family coming to town for a few days (who would come to New Orleans this week anyway?), and a training-camp-like focus on the game. The Saints are tentatively scheduled to return to New Orleans late Friday and hold a walkthrough at their practice facility Saturday before Sunday's scheduled game at home with the Bucs. All that can change, of course, depending on developments of the hurricane. Relatively speaking, the news seems better on that front than expected this morning, with the storm being downgraded to a Category 2 around 9:45 a.m. and the eye approaching landfall 82 miles west of the city.
GM Mickey Loomis told me late Sunday night he thought the team would be OK, but that's all he would say on the record because the Saints are determined not to be overwhelmed and distracted by the storm, the way they were by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Saints have put a news blackout on themselves, not allowing media access to their players, coaches or staff Saturday, Sunday, today and Tuesday, and hunkering down in downtown Indianapolis while practicing at new Lucas Oil Stadium.
Payton told the players Sunday night to steer clear of the media until Wednesday. The Saints can't prevent their players from watching CNN on the plasma TVs in their rooms in the tony Conrad -- if you've stayed in a Conrad Hotel, you know it's as upscale as a Four Seasons -- but they'll do everything they can to make this football business as usual. There's nothing the organization can do about the hurricane, obviously, except prepare as best it can to play games whenever the storm passes. And by sequestering the players, it prevents the kind of Saints-as-sympathetic-hoboes stories that made them a national story when Katrina hit, and gave them excuses to lose in the long run that season.
But there are issues swirling around the Saints and this hurricane, and perhaps around another potentially monster hurricane, Hanna, on the heels of Gustav. Led by this: Can the Saints survive in New Orleans? And if they can't, where will the team relocate?
In the short-term, if the storm devastates the city and its environs, the Saints and Bucs would likely flip their games, with New Orleans traveling to Tampa this Sunday and hosting the Bucs on Nov. 30. (Not that the league would be swayed by this factoid, but changing sites of the games would mean the Bucs, who already had a road-heavy midsection to their schedule, would have one home game between Oct. 20 and Dec. 20, an unprecedented load of away time.)
New Orleans might have to look for a temporary practice home. It's likely not to be in the place they fled to in 2005, San Antonio, because this time the team would be looking for a place they could call home for as long as they needed to, not a place they'd be sharing space or time with. In 2005, the Saints were forced out of the Alamodome several times to practice in parking lots and high-school fields, displaced by an NCAA volleyball tournament and a huge Home Show. This time, if necessary, they'd go to a training site where they'd be the top priority.
As for where the games would be played if the city is devastated, the Saints won't have to worry about that until a scheduled three-game homestand begins in four weeks, with San Francisco, Minnesota and Oakland coming to town on Sept. 28, Oct. 6 and Oct. 12. Following that, because of their "home'' game with San Diego in London on Oct. 26 and a bye, New Orleans does not have a home game scheduled until Nov. 24. I wouldn't be surprised to hear the Los Angeles rumors starting this week. I'd imagine the Rose Bowl and Coliseum would be frothing at the mouth to get Reggie Bush to be playing at home on fall Sundays.
In the long-term, I'll give you the best example of how tough it will be for New Orleans to play on equal footing with the teams it has to beat every year. The Saints' biggest sponsor, a local bank, pays the team $1.2 million a year in exchange for advertising and being the bank of the Saints and other privileges. The Cowboys' local bank sponsor pays the team $12 million a year. After the storms, let's say the population, which was at 485,000 before Katrina and now, pre-Gustav evacuation, is at about 275,000, nosedives again. Will the league and the owner, Tom Benson, who has rededicated himself to making the Saints a cultural hub of the rebuilding city, be so willing to try to make the franchise work in New Orleans again? I doubt it, but that's only if the storm is hugely damaging to the area, on the scale of what Katrina was.
It's always dangerous to project what will happen to a place like New Orleans when something like a hurricane is involved. We're guessing the levees will hold, but do we know? No. We're guessing the city won't be flooded, but do we know? No. I don't mean to be dancing on the football grave of the Saints, by any means. I was so overwhelmed with feeling for the city three years ago that I bought four Saints season tickets. They've since been taken over by my friend, Jack Bowers, who works for Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans, which is trying to rebuild the Upper Ninth Ward one home at a time. Heaven help the Lower Ninth Ward today.
At some point, business will be business. Right now, Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis are determined if they if they lose Sunday, it won't be Gustav that beats them.