The New Orleans Saints' season is unraveling, so much so that Coach Jim Haslett threatened Sunday to release any player that he senses has given up.
"If anybody on this football team quits or doesn't practice hard or play hard," Haslett said, "I promise you I will cut him. Period."
Haslett's frustration spilled out in the aftermath of his club's 21-6 defeat here to the Miami Dolphins. It was the Saints' fourth straight loss, dropping their record to 2-6. They've been a vagabond team since being displaced from New Orleans in August by Hurricane Katrina, and they gave a sloppy performance Sunday in their first game back in Louisiana since setting up their operations in San Antonio for the season.
This was the third different stadium in which the Saints played one of their scheduled home games this season. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made the club play its first home game of the season in its opponent's home stadium, shifting a contest against the New York Giants last month to Giants Stadium. The Saints played two home games at the Alamodome in San Antonio, and Sunday's loss came in the first of four games they're scheduled to play at LSU's Tiger Stadium.
But all season, Haslett and his players have avoided using their plight as an excuse for playing poorly and losing, and they took that approach again Sunday.
"I don't think us traveling every game has anything to do with dropping balls, not blocking the right people and not tackling," Haslett said. "I don't think that has anything to do with it."
Said wide receiver Joe Horn: "We had chances to beat every football team we played. We just didn't."
It's difficult to envision the Saints getting their season turned around. They planned to build their offense around tailback Deuce McAllister this season. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury, and that forces the team to rely even more heavily upon error-prone quarterback Aaron Brooks.
Brooks got little help Sunday from his blockers, and was sacked six times by the Dolphins. The Saints' offensive failures drew the ire of the crowd, as the fans booed them often, and of their coach.
"Coach is very frustrated," Brooks said. "And he should be."
But the players on the team without a home vowed that they won't surrender on their season.
"None of us will give up," Horn said. "Trust me."
Said cornerback Mike McKenzie: "We're 2-6. That's not good. But I believe in the men in this locker room. We need to find a way to get it done because right now, we're not. Regardless of the circumstances this year, at some point we need to find a way to win some games."
Tagliabue Says Saints Belong In Louisiana
Tagliabue was ineffective in his bid Sunday to distance himself from the notion that New Orleans will be given a chance by the league to retain the Saints by demonstrating that it can support the team in the future but if the city can't do that, the club likely will spend next season in San Antonio with an eye toward a possible move to Los Angeles at some point.
Tagliabue was dismissive of reports that the Saints eventually could end up in Los Angeles, and he said that the league will do everything it can to return the franchise to New Orleans.
But he didn't say that was a certainty. And he previously has made it clear that the league is not particularly interested in San Antonio as a potential permanent home for the team, which leaves virtually no other option but Los Angeles if the Saints don't return to New Orleans.
Tagliabue said the availability of the Superdome wouldn't be the only factor in determining whether the Saints can play some home games in New Orleans next season.
"Certainly one of the goals would be to bring the Superdome back to playing quality as early as possible," he said. " . . . [But] it's more about the overall recovery and rebuilding of the area than it is just about the facility. That's part of the mix, obviously. But we need to realize that there's been a tremendous human toll here, and for the NFL and the Saints to come back in the proper way that human toll has to be recognized and taken into account."
Tagliabue participated in a series of meetings Sunday with Saints owner Tom Benson, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Afterward, Tagliabue said in a news conference that the team will spend at least part of next season in a temporary home, likely meaning either San Antonio or Baton Rouge. Superdome officials have said the building might be ready to host some games next season.
"We're trying to be realistic, not just with the facilities issues but with what I would call the human issues and the recovering and rebuilding issues in this part of our nation," Tagliabue said. "We'll look at all alternatives. I think what we need to do is to recognize that the people in this region and the businesses in this region and the governmental agencies in this region have so many priorities that rebuilding the Saints and recommitting the Saints to Louisiana is just one of those many priorities. . . . We have a lot of decisions to make. The Saints have a lot of decisions to make. The federal government has got a lot of decisions to make. The city of New Orleans has got decisions to make."
Tagliabue maintained that the league will do its best to return the Saints to New Orleans because that's the right thing to do, not because the NFL is overly concerned about being perceived by the public as abandoning the hurricane-ravaged city.
"I'm not big into image," Tagliabue said. "I'm into reality. I think the reality is, the NFL has been a very responsible business organization for many, many generations. The owners pride themselves on being positive contributors to their communities. We understand very well what the extraordinary demands are in this situation."
Horn said he'd be pleased to see the Saints based in Louisiana again next season.
"I would love to play in Baton Rouge next year," the wide receiver said. "I would love to play in New Orleans in the dome, if possible." . . . Benson reportedly had a pair of confrontations after the game, lunging at a camera crew from a New Orleans-area television station and getting into a screaming match with a fan.
Culpepper Done For Season
The knee injury suffered Sunday by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper will, as expected, keep him sidelined for the remainder of the season.
Culpepper suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee when he was hit from the side by Panthers cornerback Chris Gamble during the Vikings' loss at Carolina. Culpepper also suffered damage to the medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments and faces up to a year of rehabilitation after surgery, putting his availability for the start in next season in doubt as well.
Brad Johnson takes over as the starter for the Vikings, whose record dropped to 2-5. Culpepper finishes the season with six touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 72.0.
R. Williams Thrives
Dolphins tailback Ricky Williams had been a non-factor in his first two games back from his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, which came on the heels of his one-year retirement from the sport. He totaled only seven rushing yards in those two games. But Sunday, playing against his original NFL team, Williams looked like his old, productive self, running for 82 yards on 17 carries.
"I think it was good enough to help us win," he said of his performance. "There is always room for improvement, but the bottom line is we just got the win. We need to keep it in that frame of mind. You gain confidence when you stay positive and keep working to get better. I was able to get the ball a little more. We sustained some drives, and we were able to run the ball. The biggest thing for the running game is rhythm."
Dolphins rookie tailback Ronnie Brown also got into a rhythm Sunday, with 106 rushing yards on 23 carries.
"We seemed to be a little more comfortable," Brown said. " . . . We did a good job moving the chains on third down. With that in mind, we were able to control the clock a little bit more."