It had all happened so fast. The morning before, they had practiced like any other day at training camp. For 24 hours, they had scrolled on their phones and studied phrases such as wind shear and barometric pressure. They were supposed to sleep in that downtown hotel as standard procedure the night before a preseason game. They instead would be leaving home to seek shelter from Hurricane Ida.
“It was like, we’re headed to a place, and we’ll figure it out when the plane gets there,” Jordan said.
On Sunday, a little more than two weeks after they relocated a football team on the fly, the Saints celebrated at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., where the end zones had been painted with “SAINTS” in black and gold. They destroyed the Green Bay Packers, a Super Bowl aspirant, 38-3. The victory showcased Sean Payton’s play-calling wizardry, Jameis Winston’s deep passing and the defense’s ferocity. Even more, it provided a testament to organizational planning, resolve and competence.
Some NFL teams can’t figure out third and six when a lineman goes down. The Saints managed players’ anxieties, solved a mountainous logistical labyrinth and executed a game plan that throttled Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. They refused to consider their circumstances — in the wake of a hurricane that led to at least 29 deaths in Louisiana, left more than a million people without power and caused untold destruction — as adverse.
“Everything we’re going through is small,” offensive tackle and team captain Terron Armstead said. “It’s minute compared to the real problems. Back in South Louisiana, they got real issues with homes being destroyed, no power, water, sewage problems. Anything we’re going through is real minute, man. It’s just on the surface. We can’t allow ourselves to complain. How dare we feel sorry for ourselves? We’re put up in a nice hotel. We know where our next meal is coming from. I don’t think that thought ever creeped in anybody’s head.”
‘Focus on what we can control’
After practice Aug. 26, a reporter asked Payton about a tropical storm gathering strength in the Caribbean. It was the first he had heard of it. Payton retreated to the Saints’ facility, panicked and asked General Manager Mickey Loomis, “Hey, what’s going on?”
As the hours passed, the storm formed into a hurricane and started gaining strength. Ida would be considered Category 3 at least. The Saints would have to evacuate.
Loomis has worked for the Saints since 2000. He was the general manager when Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005 and displaced the Saints for a whole season. Planning for a temporary relocation during hurricane season is part of life in the city. That it coincides with the start of the NFL season makes it a complicated but ever-present part of his job.
Above any logistical mission, Loomis said during a news conference with local reporters, he operates with two guiding principles. First, solve one problem at a time. Second, communicate clearly, especially with players and staffers who have not experienced a New Orleans storm before, and be available to address individual problems.
“The main goal is to create an environment where all the other distractions are removed and you can focus on football,” Payton said during a news conference.
The Cowboys agreed to let the Saints use their facility. Jay Romig is listed as the Saints’ administrative director, but the team’s owners call him their “vice president of everything.” He booked rooms at the Omni Dallas, the one hotel with rooms that could house family members and had ballrooms where the team could meet. The Saints chartered a separate plane for families, allowing them to come along.
“They had everything for you, down to the snack of that day to how we were going to get to Dallas to how to accommodate all families in the rooms,” Jordan said. “Everything they did was A-1, top-level-type stuff to allow us to alleviate the mental stresses and focus on what we can control.”
At the Saints’ first meeting in Dallas, Payton addressed the players. “Look,” he told them, “the schedule is going to be uncomfortable.” He reminded them that people had it worse back home. Payton emphasized focusing on what they could control.
Payton never had to worry. The Saints had developed a team built for hard times. In identifying team leaders off the top of his head, Jordan reeled off 13 names, about a quarter of the roster. “It’s not anybody who could just walk in and play for the organization,” Armstead said. “It’s a culture that we’ve been and that we can demand once you come into the locker room.”
Once the Saints surmounted the initial challenges, they found intangible benefits. The trip bonded them in a meaningful way. Payton typically meets players’ families in brief moments — maybe a quick chat after a game. One morning in Dallas, he watched 15 children play touch football in the meal room as the Saints ate breakfast.
“You do get, I think, a little bit more focused when something like this happens as opposed to less,” Payton said.
‘Let’s help them out’
The Saints could not stay in the Cowboys’ facility indefinitely. On the evening of Aug. 30, Payton called TCU Coach Gary Patterson, a close friend. He asked whether the Saints could share the Horned Frogs’ facilities in Fort Worth. The coaches compared practice schedules and happily realized their days off, longest workdays and preferred practice times aligned without conflict. Patterson called Mike Sinquefield, TCU’s deputy athletic director for internal affairs, and explained Payton’s request.
“If we can make it happen,” Patterson told Sinquefield, “I’d like to help them.”
Sinquefield grew up in LaPlace, La., just outside of New Orleans. When he was a kid, pro football fans in Louisiana called them the ‘Aints and showed up with paper bags over their heads. He understands the deep connection between Louisianans and their football teams, how the energy in the air changes when the Saints are playing well.
“If you can make the schedule work, I’m all-in,” Sinquefield recalled telling Patterson. “Let’s help them out.”
The next morning, Loomis and Sinquefield started hashing out details. TCU’s practice facility has a two-story weight room, so the Saints and Horned Frogs could lift with minimal contact and risk of coronavirus transmission. Sinquefield drew up a month-long contract with guidance from the campus’s conference services group. He tracked down insurance certificates. TCU waived most every fee. The Saints are paying expenses such as housekeeping, but “this isn’t anything to try to profit from,” Sinquefield said.
Saints equipment managers began moving gear into the visitors’ locker room of Amon G. Carter Stadium about 24 hours after Payton called Patterson.
“I watch video, and I see the destruction in my hometown,” Sinquefield said. “You feel so helpless, like you want to do something. And then you get the call from the Saints: Can you help us? That’s my one small contribution to hopefully helping. If things go well here and the Saints play well, maybe myself and our team at TCU played some minute role in giving them a chance to be successful.”
On Sept. 6, a week after Payton called Patterson and six days before their season opener, the Saints held their first practice at TCU. They moved from the Omni to the Four Seasons to be closer to campus. The university’s staffers shuttled Saints players from the locker room to the practice facility on 10 golf carts. Sinquefield drove Payton.
The biggest behind-the-scenes challenge arrived over the weekend. TCU hosted California at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, which meant the Golden Bears needed the visitors’ locker room. After the Saints finished their workout Friday, their equipment staff began emptying the locker room, loading gear into the Saints’ four semitrailers on TCU’s campus. Cal’s equipment staffers started their work late Friday night. On Sunday morning, the Saints’ staff started unloading the truck and reshaping the locker room for Monday’s practice. Semis were strewn across the stadium’s loading dock.
The cooperation between Cal and the Saints reinforced a truth known to anyone who has worked in sports: Equipment staffers may work for different teams, but they are part of the same tribe.
Sinquefield said he will never forget how often Saints players thanked TCU staffers and wished them luck against Cal. He described the Saints as “really, really pleasant houseguests.” When the Saints leave the locker room each day, the cleaning crew finds it nearly spotless.
“People make any organization,” Armstead said, “whether it’s a bad one or a great one.”
After the Saints throttled the Packers, Payton handed a game ball to Romig, who Payton said represented “all the people involved with the logistics.”
The Saints faced another obstacle this week. Several offensive coaches, a nutritionist and a practice squad player, all of them vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus. Payton conducted an offensive meeting with just three assistants: Zach Strief, Ronald Curry and Pete Carmichael. He told them, “It’s like ‘Ted Lasso.’ ”
“The challenges back home are far greater than our team getting on a plane and playing an away game or having to relocate,” Payton said after beating the Packers. “The challenges back home are far more significant. Hopefully today was a good break from everything else people have been focused on.”
The Saints’ next scheduled home game is Oct. 3 against the New York Giants. As of now, a Saints spokesman said, they plan to play at the Superdome. Whenever they play in front of their fans again, the Saints expect bedlam.
“Electric,” Armstead said. “Deafening. It’s going to be crazy, man. It’s going to be wild, in a great way.”
For now, they remain gracious houseguests, focused on winning another football game. They know their challenges are nothing compared with what people back home face.
Perspective is never far away. Jordan, in his 11th season with the Saints, has made New Orleans home. He returned during the break between preseason and the regular season. His neighborhood still had no power. He heard stories of clogged sewage lines. He knew people who relied on MREs, the ready-to-eat meals common in the military. He saw people lined up at gas stations.
“Nobody cares about our woes,” Jordan said. “Our city got hit hard. Who are we to say, ‘Oh, my God, we hate this schedule’? We’re blessed to get to a facility we can use and focus on the game we love to play.”