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Saints Struggle on the Home Affront

Times Staff Writer

The New Orleans Saints were America’s Team when they stepped off the plane, America’s Team when they arrived at Giants Stadium, America’s Team when they stood for a heartfelt national anthem.

Then, Monday’s game started, the Saints fumbled the opening kickoff, the New York Giants recovered, and the crowd roared.

America’s Team? Not in the land of the Giants.

The displaced Saints, a team that wears a city’s heart on its sleeve, absorbed a big-apple-sized beating, 27-10, losing a game that was supposed to be their home opener. The game was moved to the Meadowlands because of devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

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It didn’t feel like a home game to New Orleans players, even though the NFL did what it could, flying in the SaintSation cheerleaders and painting SAINTS in the east end zone.

“Traveling out here was uncalled for,” said quarterback Aaron Brooks, echoing the sentiments of many if not all of his teammates. “Try not to patronize us next time and tell us it’s a home game. But those were the circumstances and we lost.”

Teammate Darren Howard summed up the experience in three words: “Too much blue.”

There was green too. The Saints and Giants used gate proceeds Monday to donate a combined $1.4 million to hurricane relief, and the NFL Players Assn. donated $1 million. The league conducted a telethon during the game, loading the phone banks with current and former players.

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Saint Coach Jim Haslett opened his postgame comments by thanking the league and the Giants for their efforts. Later, he acknowledged the unique difficulties for the coaches and players of a transient team.

“We take this thing day by day,” he said. “We’ve been in four complexes in four weeks, we’ve moved offices numerous times, I’ve lived in three hotels and now an apartment.... But that has nothing to do with what we did on that field today. We [stunk] on that field, if you want to know the truth.”

It was the sixth straight Monday night loss for the Saints, who had six turnovers -- three fumbles and three interceptions.

The announced paid attendance was 68,031, which was about 12,000 shy of a sellout at Giants Stadium but would have been too large for the Superdome, which last year accommodated 64,900.

Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, both New Orleans natives, performed the national anthem, Connick singing and Marsalis on saxophone; New Orleans jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield played “America the Beautiful”; and the band 3 Doors Down performed at halftime.

In a discussion with a small group of reporters before kickoff, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue called the game a “mid-September Super Bowl” in terms of the effort required to pull it off on short notice. He said he’s considering the possibility of staging another grand-scale fundraiser in December for the hurricane victims.

“I think people will need long-term help,” he said. “It’s easy to have a short-term attention span. ... By then, people will have a whole new set of needs.”

As for when the Saints might be able to return to New Orleans, Tagliabue said, “I haven’t heard anybody even venture a guess.

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“The first thing you have to consider is, what is the city of New Orleans going to be?” he continued. “There are a lot of options: Should it be a tourist destination? Should it be a full-fledged industrial city building on the oil and gas industry, or its position as a port at the mouth of the Mississippi? There are so many questions.”

Tagliabue plans to attend the Saints’ game against Miami on Oct. 30 at LSU’s Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. He said he would be talking with Saint owner Tom Benson and LSU officials about the team playing there next season, too, “because I don’t think it will be in New Orleans, as best I can see.”

The option to have the Saints play their “home” opener at Giants Stadium was first proposed on a Sept. 1 conference call Tagliabue had with Benson and six other owners: Pittsburgh’s Dan Rooney, New England’s Robert Kraft, Kansas City’s Lamar Hunt, Tennessee’s Bud Adams, Denver’s Pat Bowlen and Jacksonville’s Wayne Weaver. Tagliabue’s perspective was it was best to play the game in the New York area to “build on the connection that exists between New York and the rest of the country in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11.” (A bit of somber synchronicity: In the first game played at the Meadowlands after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Giants faced the Saints.)

He said Monday’s game could have been played in Atlanta, Dallas or Houston -- all of which were considered -- but he noted that “anything in Texas would have been interfering with the true priority of recovery.”

The Saints will be based in San Antonio this season and will play three of their remaining home games there, at the Alamodome. The other four will be played in Baton Rouge.

“Like I tell everybody,” tackle Wayne Gandy said, “if you have to get on a plane and fly anywhere, you’re not at home.”

Gandy is even expecting an ambivalent crowd in Baton Rouge when the Saints play host to the Dolphins, because that will mark the return to LSU of Miami Coach Nick Saban.

“We’ve got a journey ahead of us,” Gandy said. “We’ve still got to win another nine games for a chance to get into the playoffs. We’ve got to come out and play.

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“I’m just trying to keep the guys as upbeat as possible. It’s a challenge. This is unprecedented, and maybe that will give us the focus we need. ... At some point, especially when you’re losing, that traveling will come into play. There’s just so many Marriotts you can check into.”


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