San Antonio and Baton Rouge, La., have emerged as the top candidates to host the New Orleans Saints' seven remaining home games this season. It appears increasingly likely that the team will play some games at each site, as long as Baton Rouge is able to handle hosting games in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
It was not clear as of this morning how many games are likely to be held at each venue -- the Alamodome in San Antonio and LSU in Baton Rouge.
It appears that Saints owner Tom Benson favors San Antonio, but other club officials said in recent days they feel a civic duty to play at least some games in hurricane- and flood-ravaged Louisiana if possible.
"I'd like to have them here because we're practicing here," Coach Jim Haslett said Monday at the Alamodome, standing outside the locker room being used by the Saints following their afternoon practice at a nearby high school sports complex in San Antonio. "But I think we owe it to the state and the region to play a couple games in Baton Rouge if we can."
General Manager Mickey Loomis said earlier in the week that he'd like to see the Saints play their home games in Baton Rouge if that wouldn't overburden the state's resources.
Benson told reporters as he left the Saints practice' Monday that he expected to know more on the issue today, but declined further comment. He indicated he might speak publicly later in the week. Several people familiar with the situation said that Benson would push for San Antonio in his discussions with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
But it already has become clear that the Saints won't necessarily get what they want on the matter. Tagliabue moved the club's first home game of the season -- scheduled for Sept. 18 against the New York Giants -- to Giants Stadium, a decision that drew criticism from Haslett. The league announced Monday that the Saints-Giants game will be played on Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. as part of a Monday night doubleheader on ABC and ESPN.
The Saints have made San Antonio their base of operations for the season, and officials in the city are eager to host the team's games as well. Benson reportedly has two homes along with his several car dealerships in San Antonio, and a Louisiana state senator who had been in contact with the Saints told the New Orleans Times-Picayune this week that Benson might move the franchise to San Antonio permanently. That notion is nothing new. The Saints' lease at the Superdome allows them to leave New Orleans after this season if they choose, and San Antonio, Los Angeles and Albuquerque were mentioned this past offseason as possible destinations.
The lease requires the team to repay $81 million in subsidies to the state if it leaves, but that might be a moot point with the Superdome damaged by the hurricane and New Orleans devastated by flooding. ABC News reported Monday that the damage to the Superdome will force the building to be torn down. If that happens, it would keep the team from returning to New Orleans in the foreseeable future. It's not clear if it would preclude the Saints from ever returning to New Orleans. Benson already had been seeking a new stadium as part of a deal to stay.
Haslett said earlier Monday he didn't give credence to reports that the Saints have resolved they will never return to New Orleans.
"I don't think they're true," Haslett said. "I think that's the last thing on anybody's mind right now."
Loomis said during a news conference Sunday that the Saints are more committed than ever to New Orleans and are determined to be an integral part of a rebirth by the city.
The Saints' next scheduled home game is Oct. 2 against the Buffalo Bills. Loomis said during an interview earlier this week that the team having multiple home sites for the rest of the season was a possibility.
"It could be anything or everything," Loomis said. "It could be a mixed bag here, there and everywhere. I don't know the answer to that. I'm hopeful that wherever it is, it gives us the best chance to be competitive. That's what we're hoping for. We're already disadvantaged. When you talk about the games from a football-operations standpoint, you want to give yourself the best chance to win the games. Hopefully we'll be able to do that."
During that interview, Loomis added: "Obviously the league has their input and we have our feelings here. Obviously we feel a strong responsibility to New Orleans and Louisiana, but we also don't want to overburden an already taxed infrastructure. There are a lot of issues to work through. We don't know what's possible yet. We have some ideas, but we don't really know what's possible. . . . I think that's going to shake out, hopefully in a short period of time because you always like to have some certainty. But we also don't want to make a decision that's too hasty."
Los Angeles reportedly was considered briefly as a possible host for Saints' games this season, but is not under consideration any longer. Haslett said Monday he assumed, given Tagliabue's decision on the Giants game, that it also was possible the Saints would play all their games this season in their opponents' stadiums.
"There's probably a chance," Haslett said. " . . . If it happened, so be it."
Wide receiver Joe Horn said the Saints, who open the regular season Sunday at Carolina, won't use their predicament as an excuse for a bad season.
"We'll be professionals and go about our jobs regardless of the situation we're in right now," Horn said. "We're not looking for a pity party here."
Horn said he hoped the team would play its home games as close to New Orleans as possible, a notion that was reinforced in his mind after he spent the weekend in Houston talking to flood evacuees.
"It was sad at first, but then I saw the smiles on people's faces," Horn said. "People there are wanting us to play football and wanting us to stay close. Hopefully they will decide to let us play close.
" . . . I thought people wouldn't care about football, but they do. One guy came up to me crying and said, 'Win for us.' It touched me big-time. . . . I thought I would cry more. But seeing the kids smile, it uplifted me. I saw people who wanted us to play football and win games for them. It made me feel 100 percent better." . . . Saints officials plan to announce a refund policy soon for Superdome ticket-holders.
Living in the Office
While many Saints players plan to move out of the team's hotel and find apartments or houses in San Antonio, Haslett said he might just sleep in his office. Of course, that wouldn't be anything new for him during the season, he said.
"I sleep in the office all the time," Haslett said.
Haslett said he also wasn't overly concerned about his players' living situations at their home away from home.
"They want their automobiles and a place to live," Haslett said. "During the season, that's really all you need." . . .
Haslett said he had 121 messages waiting for him when he finally got his cellphone, which has a New Orleans area code, to work again. . . .
Lester Vallet Sr. watched the Saints' practice Monday with his son, Lester Jr. The elder Vallet worked for the Saints from the late 1960s to the early '90s as their grounds superintendent. He was found by Saints officials Sunday at a relief shelter in San Antonio. He had been separated from his wife, Carolyn, since they were rescued from their flooded home in New Orleans two days apart last week. He hadn't been able to contact his wife since leaving the city.
But after club officials brought him back to the team hotel Sunday and reunited him with Lester Jr., currently the Saints' assistant facilities manager, the two were able to find Carolyn at a shelter in Lafayette, La.
Lester Sr. had been unable to get through to Carolyn's cell phone. But Lester Jr. said that his girlfriend sent Carolyn a text message, and she called back 15 minutes later.
As the elder Vallet was speaking to reporters Monday, Benson walked over and hugged him. Vallet said he also heard from former Saints coach Bum Phillips, who called him at the team hotel. Vallet wears a Saints belt buckle that he says was given to him by Phillips. . . .
The Saints aren't scheduled to practice today. Team officials were organizing another trip for players this morning to Kelly USA, the former Air Force base in San Antonio that's now an industrial park and is housing about 4,500 refugees in two buildings.
Jerry Rice's retirement Monday means that the NFL lost its career receiving leader and career rushing leader in the same offseason. Emmitt Smith announced his retirement during Super Bowl week in February. Rice walked away from a roster spot with the Denver Broncos after Coach Mike Shanahan informed him that he wouldn't be among the club's top three receivers and might not be active for games. . . .
Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward got the contract extension that he expected when he ended his training-camp holdout. Ward signed a four-year extension with the Steelers on Monday worth just less than $26 million, including $10 million in bonuses. The deal runs through the 2009 season. . . .
The Minnesota Vikings reached a two-year contract agreement with wideout Koren Robinson, the troubled former first-round draft choice who was released by Seattle during the offseason. Robinson had hoped to continue his NFL career after entering an alcohol rehabilitation program last month. He isn't scheduled to play this weekend but is to be available for the Vikings' second game of the season. . . .
Dallas released wide receiver Quincy Morgan, who became expendable with the Cowboys' signing of free-agent wideout Peerless Price to go with current top receivers Terry Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson. Price signed his one-year, $2 million contract Monday. The Cowboys also signed safety Willie Pile, who'd been released by Kansas City, and released defensive end Eric Ogbogu.
Colts Bolster Defense
No team helped itself more than the Indianapolis Colts in the final round of roster juggling just before the season. The Colts traded a draft pick to Tennessee over the weekend for linebacker Rocky Calmus, that on the heels of signing defensive tackle Corey Simon as a free agent after Philadelphia lifted its franchise-player tag from him. The Colts are inching closer toward having a defense just good enough to be the complement that the team's explosive offense needs to reach a Super Bowl. . . .
Quarterback Eli Manning is scheduled to test his recently ailing right elbow by participating fully in the New York Giants' practice today. . . .
Cornerback Ty Law was officially named a starter Monday by New York Jets Coach Herman Edwards. . . .
Rookie Charlie Frye was named Cleveland's backup quarterback, behind starter Trent Dilfer. Frye beat out Doug Johnson for the No. 2 spot. . . .
Rookie Dan Orlovsky becomes the backup quarterback in Detroit, behind starter Joey Harrington, with the broken leg suffered by Jeff Garcia in the preseason finale. . . .
Running back Jarrett Payton, the son of late Chicago Bears great Walter Payton, was signed to Tennessee's practice squad for a second straight season. . . .
Bears cornerback Jerry Azumah, returning from hip surgery last month, participated fully in Chicago's practice Monday and is slated to play in the opener Sunday against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. . . .
Arizona signed wide receiver Reggie Swinton, a day after claiming defensive tackle Langston Moore off waivers. . . .
Seahawks defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes was hospitalized and undergoing tests Monday, according to Coach Mike Holmgren, who did not provide specifics.