Saints Could Play Season on Road

By Mark Maske and Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 1, 2005

The New Orleans Saints and the NFL prepared yesterday for the possibility that the team might have to spend the entire season away from its hurricane- and flood-ravaged city.

With the Superdome, the Saints' home field, damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the mayor of New Orleans saying he did not expect the city to "be functional for two or three months," a team spokesman said it had become "very apparent" that the club will have to play at least a portion of its home schedule elsewhere. The spokesman, Greg Bensel, said it is conceivable that the Saints won't be able to play at the Superdome all season.

"We don't know the answer to that question," Bensel said by telephone from San Jose, where the Saints have been practicing this week. "Based on what city officials are saying, the future doesn't look too bright for being able to play games in New Orleans. But we just don't know right now."

The Saints plan to base their operations in San Antonio after they play their final preseason game tonight in Oakland, Calif. Team and league officials were considering several possible sites for the Saints' home games. The possibilities included San Antonio; Houston; Baton Rouge, La.; Hattiesburg, Miss.; and Birmingham.

Houston Texans owner Robert McNair told the Bloomberg news service that he offered the Saints the use of Reliant Stadium, but he expected the club to try to play in Baton Rouge instead.

Bensel said he expects Saints and NFL representatives to spend the weekend going over possible venues and their availability on the dates of scheduled games. Saints players are scheduled to be off Friday through Sunday to deal with personal issues before beginning the work Monday of readying for the club's Sept. 11 regular season opener at Carolina.

"We're going to go to San Antonio and set up our operations," Bensel said. "The players will have a few days off to try to deal with their families, deal with their situations at home and try to get their families to San Antonio, and then we'll go to work next week to prepare for the season. We're talking to the league office and looking at conflict dates with certain sites, and trying to figure out what we're going to do."

The Saints' first home game is scheduled for Sept. 18 against the New York Giants. The league would like the Saints to play as close as possible to New Orleans.

Two sections of the Superdome's roof were blown off by Hurricane Katrina. The stadium was surrounded by several feet of water yesterday and, like much of the region, remained without electricity.

"We are focusing on many aspects of the situation, including participation in relief efforts, providing services to players and staff impacted by the tragedy, and the logistical issues of where the Saints will practice and play," said Greg Aiello, the NFL's vice president of public relations. "No decisions have been made on the Saints' home schedule. We are exploring options should the Superdome be unavailable."

The team's owner, Tom Benson, reportedly has two homes and several car dealerships in San Antonio, and that city has been mentioned as a possible future home of the franchise if it leaves New Orleans -- which was regarded as a possibility even before Katrina hit.

Benson said during the offseason that he would make a decision after the season about the franchise's future in New Orleans. He asked the state to either modernize the Superdome or build a new stadium.

Matthys Levy, chairman of Weidlinger Associates, a New York-based structural engineering firm, said the Superdome is structurally sound despite the beating it took from Katrina. "There's nothing wrong with [it]," said Levy, who helped build the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. "The fact that some of the roof blew off in New Orleans doesn't mean a thing. It's just covering. That can be repaired."

News researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company