The New Orleans Saints still are seething about the hurricane-related rescheduling decision the NFL made regarding one of their games earlier this season.
The outcome of tonight's game in Miami likely will determine whether the Kansas City Chiefs join them.
The Chiefs say they were informed late Thursday morning by the league office that, with Hurricane Wilma threatening to strike Florida this weekend, their game against the Dolphins in Miami scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday was being moved to 7 p.m. today. That gave the Chiefs, by their account, about 31 hours to condense their final three practices of the week into one session, travel to South Florida and be on the field at Dolphins Stadium for kickoff. Chiefs President Carl Peterson said Thursday the NFL hadn't sought his input about the feasibility of such a plan.
Peterson said the league had asked him about the possibility of playing the game Sunday in Kansas City and he'd responded, after looking into it, that the Chiefs could pull it off. Peterson said he was not aware of any consideration given to playing the game at a neutral site, although Chiefs Coach Dick Vermeil mentioned the possibility of the game being played in Atlanta.
But NFL officials decided the best option was to play the game where it was scheduled to be played -- in Miami -- at a time that was deemed to be safe for participants and spectators.
Both teams had to rush through their final game preparations, and both could be without a few injured players who might have been able to heal sufficiently to play in a Sunday game -- wide receiver Samie Parker and cornerback Dexter McCleon for the Chiefs and defensive end Jason Taylor and linebacker Junior Seau for the Dolphins.
Both teams say they spent the week readying as if the game would be played on Sunday. In a normal week for an NFL team, Monday is spent reviewing the game from the day before. Tuesday is the players' day off. Wednesday and Thursday bring the week's heaviest practices. There's a lighter practice Friday, then Saturday is devoted to a walk-through and, for the visiting club, traveling.
The schedule was disrupted for both teams, but the Chiefs feel they will be at a competitive disadvantage because they have to travel and the Dolphins don't. Instead of flying to Miami on Saturday and resting for a Sunday game, the Chiefs are scheduled to leave Kansas City this morning, arrive in Florida around midday and then have a pregame team meal and chapel service before heading to the stadium by bus. They're scheduled to fly back to Kansas City late tonight after the game.
If they win tonight, the Chiefs won't give that hectic schedule a second thought. If they lose, it might bother them a little bit when they look back on it.
Last month, after being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints played their first scheduled home game of the season -- slated to be a Sunday game against the New York Giants at the Superdome -- in Giants Stadium on a Monday night on the orders of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who wanted to put the game on the big New York stage to aid fundraising efforts for hurricane relief. The Saints said they were happy about the money raised for relief efforts. But Coach Jim Haslett was critical of the decision to make his club play a supposed home game in its opponent's stadium, and even weeks later it remained a sore subject for him.
The Saints gave a dismal performance against the Giants in that Sept. 19 game, looking nothing like the team that had won at Carolina eight days before to open the regular season. They had six turnovers and 13 penalties and lost to the Giants, 27-10.
Vermeil said Thursday he'd told his players the circumstances aren't an excuse to play poorly and lose.
"Our attitude is they couldn't have picked a better team to send down there and play well," Vermeil said during a news briefing. "That's how we're approaching it. We're going to go down there and play our best football game of the year. The guys are in a good frame of mind and have accepted it. We would have liked it to be a different way. But we have choice, no decision. No one called me and asked my opinion. We're going to honor it and be the best football team they could have sent."
Vermeil said he turned Thursday's practice, scheduled to be in full pads, into a light walk-through, meaning his club had no practices all week with full-scale hitting. Vermeil said he'd never, as an NFL coach, had a team travel to a game on game day. The Friday night game reminded him of his days as a high school coach in California in the late 1950s and early '60s, he said. Vermeil said his recommendation, if he'd been asked, would have been to play the game at a neutral site.
"Put us in a neutral site and get us out of the storm," he said. "What are the weather conditions going to be when those guys play [tonight]? Is it going to be a football game or a mud bath? But, hey, the message has been sent and we're going to go and do a hell of a job."
Vermeil, always the positive thinker, did his best to be convincing when he said his team will play well in between traveling back and forth between Kansas City and Miami on the same day.
"It's not a distraction," he said. "It's a change. If you can't handle change in this business, then you shouldn't be in it. I'm a routine-oriented-type guy, but I've learned how to handle these situations, I think, correctly. I know my role and my coaches do a real good job. I really feel strongly that the players will go down there and do an outstanding job.
" . . . I think they considered every possible angle in regard to this situation. This, for the league, turned out to be the best one. We're going to make it the best one for the Chiefs. If the New Orleans Saints can go do what they've had to do, the Kansas City Chiefs can go do it one weekend. That's my attitude."
Legal Battle Over Superdome?
The Saints and the state of Louisiana could be headed toward a legal battle over the fitness of the Superdome to host games next season.
Saints owner Tom Benson reportedly is prepared to exercise a clause that enables the team to break its Superdome lease if the facility cannot be used. But Superdome officials indicated Thursday that the building should be ready to host at least a portion of the Saints' home schedule next season and they would contest any attempt by the club to break its lease.
The Saints have been based in San Antonio since being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. They are scheduled to play three home games this season at the Alamodome in San Antonio and four at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.
Even before Katrina struck, there were reports that Benson was interested in possibly moving the Saints to San Antonio or another city after this season. Those reports have intensified now that San Antonio has become the Saints' home away from home, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin criticized Benson sharply this week and said the city might tell the NFL to let the club leave and be replaced by an expansion franchise in the future.
The Saints' lease at the Superdome gives them a window of opportunity after this season to break the lease, but they would have to reimburse the state $81 million in subsidies. However, a clause in the lease enables the Saints to break the lease without reimbursing the subsidies if the Superdome is rendered unusable by an act of God. The Saints have until late next month, 90 days after Katrina struck, to exercise that clause. The San Antonio Express-News reported today that Benson plans to exercise the clause.
But Superdome officials announced Thursday that the building, damaged by Katrina, should have a temporary roof in place within 10 days and should be ready to host games next season. They indicated they would contest any attempt by the Saints to declare the Superdome unusable and break the lease.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said the league wants the Saints, if possible, to be part of the rebuilding of New Orleans. Tagliabue pushed for the team to play more of its games in Louisiana than in San Antonio this season, and he is scheduled to begin discussions next week about the possibility of the Saints playing their home games next season in Baton Rouge if the Superdome is not available. Benson reportedly prefers for the Saints to play in San Antonio next season and then perhaps re-evaluate their options, including the possibility of returning to New Orleans.
The Saints reportedly already have begun the process of trying to break their lease for their training facility in the New Orleans area because of damage they say it sustained while it was occupied by federal authorities in the aftermath of Katrina. This week, Benson reportedly fired a top Saints executive, Arnold Fielkow, who was a leading proponent of the view that the team's commitment to New Orleans should be stronger than ever in the wake of the storm.
QB Decision Looming for Lions Quarterback
Jeff Garcia has made it through the Detroit Lions' heaviest practices of the week, and Coach Steve Mariucci soon must make a decision about whether the veteran will replace the struggling Joey Harrington as the club's starter Sunday at Cleveland.
Garcia, a former Pro Bowl selection when he played for Mariucci in San Francisco, is returning from a broken leg and severely sprained ankle that he suffered in the final preseason game. Harrington is the NFL's lowest-rated passer, but Mariucci has indicated that he wants to make a full evaluation of Garcia's physical status before making a determination about his starter . . . .
With quarterback Marc Bulger sidelined by a shoulder injury, the St. Louis Rams signed Jeff Smoker to their practice squad to be their third option behind new starter Jamie Martin and rookie Ryan Fitzpatrick. Smoker had been released by the Rams last month . . . .
The Falcons have dropped Dez White from the starting lineup at the wide receiver spot opposite Michael Jenkins. Brian Finneran replaces White in the starting lineup, and the team also has moved rookie Roddy White and Jerome Pathon ahead of Dez White in the playing rotation.