The New Orleans Saints were the feel-good story of the NFL when they beat the Carolina Panthers on the opening weekend of the season, weeks after being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and hurriedly setting up operations in San Antonio.
The Saints don't feel so good these days. Their ugly loss here Sunday to the Miami Dolphins prompted boos from the crowd at Louisiana State's Tiger Stadium while extending the Saints' losing streak to four games and dropping their record to 2-6. Fans complained about long lines at ticket windows and Saints owner Tom Benson reportedly got into two confrontations after the game, lunging at a camera crew and exchanging heated words with a heckling fan.
The Saints are winless in three games since losing their offensive centerpiece, tailback Deuce McAllister, to a season-ending knee injury, and it's difficult to envision them getting their season turned around without him. McAllister's absence leaves them depending heavily on mistake-prone quarterback Aaron Brooks -- who, among other things, retreated his way to a 26-yard sack against the Dolphins.
Coach Jim Haslett's frustration spilled over after the game Sunday, as he said: "If anybody on this football team quits or doesn't practice hard or play hard, I promise you I will cut him. Period."
Sunday's loss came in the first of four games that the Saints are scheduled to play in Baton Rouge. Tiger Stadium is the third stadium in which they've played one of their scheduled home games. 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 in September to Giants Stadium, and the Saints have played two home games at the Alamodome in San Antonio. But the team has not used its vagabond status as an excuse.
"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."
The players on the team without a home vowed that they won't surrender on their season.
"None of us will give up," wide receiver Joe Horn said. "Trust me."
Skepticism Over Tagliabue's Vow
Tagliabue was dismissive Sunday of reports that the Saints eventually could end up in Los Angeles if the league is not convinced that New Orleans can recover sufficiently from Katrina to properly support the team. But his bid to distance himself and the league from that notion did little to change the minds of people involved in the deliberations.
"That was just public relations," said one of the officials trying to persuade the league to return the team to New Orleans, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions. "We know we still have to prove we can support the team here or it's off to San Antonio for one year and then on to L.A."
Tagliabue said Sunday 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. . . .
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. During Carnell "Cadillac" Williams's torrid NFL beginning for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Dolphins heard whispers that perhaps they had drafted the wrong Auburn tailback when they selected Brown second overall in April. But now Brown has more carries (114 to 112), more rushing yards (544 to 467) and a higher average per carry (4.8 yards to 4.2) than Williams. . . .
When the Buccaneers lost quarterback Brian Griese to a season-ending knee injury, the question became whether erratic third-year pro Chris Simms could keep the club's early-season success going.
The early returns were not encouraging, as Simms committed three turnovers in the 15-10 loss to the woeful 49ers. The Buccaneers obtained veteran quarterback Tim Rattay from the 49ers before last month's NFL trading deadline, giving Coach Jon Gruden another option if Simms continues to falter. But Gruden isn't ready to make the move just yet. He said Monday that Simms remains the starter for this weekend's key NFC South matchup with the Panthers in Tampa.
"The schedule doesn't get any easier," Gruden said during a news conference. "Our job is to do everything we can to help him. His job is obviously to make plays and move this football team and help us score and win games, and eliminate turnovers, negative plays, sacks. Those are areas that must be cleaned up in a hurry. And he'll be the quarterback this week again. Hopefully he can do that."
49ers Likely Will Turn to Pickett
Cody Pickett is likely to become the fourth starting quarterback for the 49ers this season following Rattay, Alex Smith and Ken Dorsey. Pickett finished the Buccaneers game and probably will take over as the starter for this weekend's game against the New York Giants. . . .
Browns running back Reuben Droughns was arrested and charged with drunken driving early Tuesday in suburban Cleveland. Droughns was released without bail and is scheduled to appear in Medina County Municipal Court on Friday. . . .
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger underwent an MRI exam on his right knee that showed the injury suffered Monday against Baltimore isn't serious, but Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher isn't ready to say if his quarterback will be ready to play Sunday in Green Bay. . . .
Seahawks safety Ken Hamlin was placed on the non-football injury list and will be out for the rest of the season because of injuries suffered last month in a fight outside a nightclub. . . .
The Broncos placed cornerback Lenny Walls, who began the season as the starter opposite Champ Bailey, on the reserve-injured list, meaning he must be released after he recovers from an injured groin. The move signals the team's confidence in fast-improving rookies Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth (Maryland). . . .
The knee injury suffered Sunday by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper not only will keep him sidelined for the remainder of this season, but it also could affect his playing status at the outset of next season. Culpepper damaged the anterior cruciate, medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments, and faces up to a year of rehabilitation after surgery. Brad Johnson takes over as the starter for the Vikings, whose record dropped to 2-5 with Sunday's loss to Carolina.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.