For Saints, Routine Is Welcome Relief

Team Puts Aside Hurricane Worries

The Saints, displaced by Hurricane Gustav, prepared at the Indianapolis Colts' new stadium for their opener last week.
The Saints, displaced by Hurricane Gustav, prepared at the Indianapolis Colts' new stadium for their opener last week. (By Michael Conroy -- Associated Press)
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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The New Orleans Saints have only a football game to worry about this week. They can spend the week preparing at their practice facility in Metairie, La., and then travel east at week's end to face the Washington Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field.

How simple.

Too often in recent years, things have been far more complicated for the Saints. Readying for football games has come only after finding ways to sidestep natural disasters and reorder disrupted lives. The Saints were displaced from New Orleans for an entire season after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005; they were reminded of that trying experience last week when New Orleans was evacuated for Hurricane Gustav and the Saints spent the week practicing in Indianapolis.

They and almost everyone else on the Gulf Coast were relieved when Gustav turned out not nearly as destructive to the region as Katrina, and the Saints were able to play at the Superdome on Sunday and beat Tampa Bay in their opener.

There were more storm worries in recent days with Hurricane Ike. But the latest reports have it projected to be headed south and west of New Orleans toward Texas, and the Saints intend to stay put this week.

"We started planning for it over the weekend," Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said yesterday in a telephone interview. "We had our eye on this storm and had some conversations Saturday and Sunday. Since then, every report we got was a little better, that it was going further west and south of us. This is just something we have to deal with. It's a fact of life where we live here.

"I feel like we have a real good handle on the timing now. We know what we have to do five days out, four days out. We know when we need to make decisions. We didn't have that prior to Katrina. The real key is to make sure everyone gets their family and personal situations squared away first."

The Saints drew on their Katrina experience last week. After Katrina, they spent the 2005 season based in San Antonio and split their home games between that city and Baton Rouge.

With Gustav headed toward the Gulf Coast, the Saints spent last week practicing at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts' new stadium. They called about the availability of the RCA Dome, the Colts' old stadium. It wasn't available, but Colts President Bill Polian offered use of the new facility. The Saints had to scramble to find more than 100 hotel rooms, and they were to be split between two hotels until one of them found extra rooms at the last minute.

"The first part of any plan, we learned, was every member of the team had an opportunity to go get their family situated somewhere, get their family to safety," Loomis said. "That was first. We had time to do that before we left New Orleans. In a lot of cases, guys did that and then met us."

The post-Katrina experience "is always on your mind to some degree because of the impact it had on our community," Loomis said. "We tried to use it as a positive for us as we went through this last experience, remembering what we did well and trying to learn from what we could have done better. We said, 'Let's draw from that experience and apply it to this.' But then when you're sitting there Monday night watching CNN and waiting for the storm to hit New Orleans, you flash back to some of the things that were not so good. You can't help it. But the information early on was pretty clear that Gustav would not be nearly as bad for the city as Katrina was."

The Saints went back to New Orleans late last week to find only superficial wind damage to their headquarters. The biggest problems they encountered back home, Loomis said, were downed trees and widespread power outages. But all was well for them by Sunday, when quarterback Drew Brees threw for 343 yards and three touchdowns in the 24-20 triumph, reinforcing the notion the Saints can rebound from a 7-9 record a year ago to resemble the team that reached the NFC title game in the 2006 season.

"It was a great way to start the season off," Brees told reporters Sunday. "It was great to start out fast and beat a divisional opponent at home. It was important to get a win after the city of New Orleans was displaced all week because of the hurricane. It was great having the fans back in full force."

Coach Sean Payton said during his postgame news conference Sunday: "Certainly it is important for the city, and I have said this before: It is the first step in getting back to everyday life, and people are right now in the midst of doing that after the last evacuation. So it gives them a chance to disappear a little bit and watch us play, and we take that seriously. . . . We have a couple tough road games now ahead of us, but starting off with a home win is a lot better than starting off on the road with a loss. I was proud of the way they played. They played with a lot of energy."

Loomis said yesterday he wasn't surprised by the crisp opening performance.

"I think we've got great leadership on our team with our head coach and some of the other guys in our locker room," the general manager said. "The key to the week was that we were able to go there to Indianapolis early and get into a routine, work out at the facilities there and have meetings in the hotel. We weren't jumping around from one place to the next. We had an eye on what was happening in New Orleans, but that turned out okay. We did a good job eliminating the distractions."

The Saints have avoided a dreadful start like they had last season, when they lost their first four games. A win over the Redskins and a 2-0 beginning would have expectations soaring again in New Orleans. Loomis is doing his best not to get carried away yet.

"All 16 teams that won last weekend are feeling pretty good," Loomis said. "Last week we knew we were facing a difficult opponent that beat us twice last season. We knew it would be a hard-fought game, and it was. We know this is going to be a tough week, too."

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