Dolphins 21, Saints 6
-- The New Orleans Saints' return to Louisiana was less than inspiring and far from triumphant. The fans who showed up early and were ready to welcome back their team warmly Sunday ended up booing in frustration and heading to the exits midway through the fourth quarter, as the Saints stumbled to a 21-6 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Louisiana State University's Tiger Stadium.
"They should have booed us," Saints wide receiver Joe Horn said, "because we were playing horrible."
The Saints looked every bit like the Aints, the nickname they earned for their ineptitude throughout much of their tenure in New Orleans. This was supposed to be their emotionally charged homecoming, as they played their first game in the state since being displaced from New Orleans in August by Hurricane Katrina. But the day's prevailing emotions for them and their fans ended up being exasperation and disgust.
"We were awful. Terrible," said Coach Jim Haslett, who pledged to cut any of his players who give up on the season and don't give a full effort on the practice field this week. "We didn't play very well . . . . Right now we're a bad football team."
The Saints' season continues to unravel. They lost their fourth straight game to drop to 2-6. They couldn't manage a touchdown, scoring on two field goals by John Carney. Their pitiable performance was typified by a four-play stretch in the third quarter in which quarterback Aaron Brooks lost a fumble and recovered it, threw an incompletion, was sacked for a safety and then watched his teammates get penalized for being offside on the free kick. Earlier, safety Dwight Smith sprinted upfield after a first-quarter interception, only to trip over one of his teammates and lose a fumble to set up a Dolphins' field goal.
"I'm disappointed, embarrassed, upset," said Brooks, who completed 14 of 31 passes and was sacked six times. "It's tough right now. I didn't expect that to happen. I didn't expect the season to go the way it's going. I didn't expect us to struggle the way we're struggling."
The franchise's future beyond this season was debated earlier in the day in a series of meetings involving Saints owner Tom Benson, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor Ray C. Nagin.
For the Saints, the game meant another plane ride from San Antonio, where they're based this season, and another night in a hotel. But the locals were eager to see them back in the state. The parking lots outside the stadium were packed hours before the game, with many fans having parked their campers and stayed overnight after LSU played a home game Saturday evening. People in Mardi Gras-style outfits danced and sang and partied before kickoff.
As scheduled, a plane circled the stadium before the game carrying a banner that read: "Tagliabue, SOS: Save Our New Orleans Saints!" Fans in the stands held signs that said, "Please Don't Break My Heart, Mr. Benson," and, "Welcome Back To Your Real Home, Saints." The Saints announced that they sold 61,643 tickets for the game.
But the fans' disenchantment grew throughout the afternoon as the Saints' gaffes piled up, and the stands were mostly empty by game's end. A small group of fans gathered around the tunnel where the Saints exited the field to head to their locker room. Most of the people cheered, but one man yelled: "Benson can take these damn Saints to San Antonio, with Aaron Brooks!"
Horn said he was happy to be back in Louisiana but that made him feel even worse about the outcome. "I felt very much at home," he said. "It made it very disappointing . . . . I could feel their pain."
Said Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie: "The fans were pretty fed up. Things weren't going well. We needed to give them something to cheer for."
The day's only successful homecoming was made by Dolphins Coach Nick Saban, who won in his return to the school that he left in December to accept the Miami job. The Dolphins (3-4) ended a three-game losing streak and amassed 188 rushing yards, 106 of them by rookie tailback Ronnie Brown and 82 more by Ricky Williams. Williams had totaled only seven rushing yards in his previous two games after returning from a one-year retirement and serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Dolphins quarterback Gus Frerotte threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to wideout Chris Chambers in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, and kicker Olindo Mare provided four field goals.
"I really tried to make this about our team [but] I really do feel like this was coming home to play a game," Saban said. "It was exciting for me, even though I did not say it . . . . This was probably the best we've played together all year as a team on both sides of the ball."