The New Orleans Saints spent this pleasantly breezy, cool evening concentrating on football, playing the Oakland Raiders in their final preseason game. But they knew their focus would shift immediately after the game to dealing with a vagabond existence necessitated by catastrophic events in their home city, as they made plans to pack as much of their organization as possible into trucks Friday and make a move to Texas that could last all season.
A source close to the situation said Thursday that Saints and NFL officials have become convinced it's virtually certain that the team will have to play all its home games this season somewhere other than in hurricane- and flood-ravaged New Orleans. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the club and the league have not made an official determination, but NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in an interview on CNBC that it would be "difficult, if not impossible" for the team to play in New Orleans this season.
Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis indicated he wasn't certain yet that the club will have to play away from New Orleans all season, but said: "From what I've seen on TV, what we can all see, that's what you would speculate. It doesn't look very good."
The team would like to keep its home games in Louisiana, most likely in Baton Rouge.
The Saints plan to be based in San Antonio beginning Friday, and the players will begin practicing there Monday after being given Friday through Sunday off to try to get their lives back in order. Team and league officials will spend the weekend sorting through a list of prospective sites at which the club could play its home games this season, and Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said the goal is to have a plan for at least the initial stages of the season in place by early next week.
"We'll play it by ear," Bensel said. "We'll be talking to the league, and by the early part of next week we should know something about where we're playing."
The Raiders defeated the Saints on Thursday, 13-6.
The Saints' team plane was scheduled to leave Oakland late Thursday night and fly to San Antonio, getting there around 5 a.m. Friday. But the Saints figured that plane would be only about half full because many players had made arrangements to fly elsewhere from here to join their families, scattered in other places after fleeing New Orleans last weekend before Hurricane Katrina hit.
The Saints are setting up their offices at a hotel on San Antonio's Riverwalk. Team owner Tom Benson, who reportedly has two homes and several car dealerships in San Antonio, plans to have his personal jet make several trips between San Antonio and Baton Rouge on Friday, carrying Saints employees who will pile into six or seven large trucks and attempt to drive to the club's training facility in the New Orleans area.
The employees will load as much as they can into the trucks -- knowing they'll have to be done by nightfall since there's no electricity -- and the caravan is to make its way Friday night to San Antonio. The Saints hope they'll be able to retrieve computer data bases, financial documents, medical equipment from their trainer's room, some strength and conditioning equipment and the Superdome ticket manifest, among other items.
"We'll load up as much as we can, and get as much as we can back to San Antonio and make an office out of it," Bensel said.
The Saints have been told that their offices -- located in Metairie, La., roughly halfway between the airport and downtown New Orleans -- aren't flooded. Their understanding, in fact, is that the ground floor of their facility has or will be taken over by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Saints players have been given the option of bringing their families to San Antonio, where the team has reserved about 80 rooms at its headquarters hotel and more at a nearby extended-stay hotel. Some players might enroll their children in school in San Antonio, expecting the team's stay to last all season. But many of the wives and kids of players, coaches and other club employees are staying with family members in other cities, and won't go to San Antonio.
"Our players and coaches and staff have done a great job," Loomis said. "They're professionals. They understand the job they have to do. The families are safe. That's the main thing. Once you know your families are safe, you're able to go about your business. There's a lot to do, but it's not overwhelming. What's overwhelming is what's going on in New Orleans and Mississippi and that entire region right now."
Thursday's game was preceded by a moment of silence for victims of the hurricane and floods. Bensel said he was not aware of any immediate family members of Saints players, coaches or front-office members who were killed, seriously injured or missing. The Saints decided Saturday morning to leave New Orleans. They got out of town Sunday and spent the week practicing in San Jose.
But many members of the Saints' traveling party had no idea whether their homes in the New Orleans area had been destroyed. Some spent the week watching television coverage of the disaster virtually nonstop; others couldn't bear to watch any longer by Thursday. Saints tailback Deuce McAllister plans to spend this weekend, along with some of his teammates, delivering food and clothing to relief shelters in Mississippi.
"We're preparing for the season," Loomis said. "Obviously what happened is on everyone's mind. But we have a civic responsibility. The fans of New Orleans love this team. If we can give a great effort, hopefully that will be uplifting to the people of the city and give them some kind of diversion."
The Saints open the regular season on Sept. 11 at Carolina. Their home opener is Sept. 18 against the New York Giants.
Staff writer Leonard Shapiro contributed to this report from Washington.