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Wanted: Place to call home

Uprooted present, uncertain future leave Saints in limbo.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2005

Dwight Smith has no regrets.

Everything happens for a reason, which is why he does not see his signing a free-agent contract with the Saints in March, five months before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, as a mistake. He won't worry about things he cannot change.

The future is another matter.

As the Saints (3-8) prepare for Sunday's game against the Bucs (7-4), little is known about the team's future or where 2006 will find players, coaches and staff members who just want a place to call home. Everyone wants answers and no one has them.

"It's tough when you feel like everybody else is against you," said Smith, a safety who played four seasons with the Bucs before joining the Saints.

"As players, we don't feel like we've had the support of even our own front-office people. We haven't been filled in on anything. You would like to know what your future holds."

Help might be on the way.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue hopes to announce the Saints' 2006 schedule by mid January, well in advance of when league schedules normally are announced, so people can plan their lives. Also, Tagliabue and Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw are discussing ways to aid the team in free agency, aware the current situation might make it unappealing to players with options.

Possible incentives include salary-cap relief for the team and an extra accredited season or roster bonus for players who sign with New Orleans, to be paid for with league funds. Any proposal would need to be approved by league owners and implemented before the start of free agency March 3.

The Steelers' Dan Rooney is one of eight owners on a committee appointed to study the situation.

"It's a legitimate concern," Rooney told reporters at a recent owners meeting in Kansas City, Mo. "Nothing like this has ever happened before. When somebody in our league needs assistance, we do what we can to support each other. You want them to be competitive."

Not everyone is in favor.

"I think our focus needs to remain the same, which is for the unemployed and people who are homeless in the Gulf Coast region," said Bucs general manager Bruce Allen, whose team competes against the Saints in the NFC South division. "As far as free agency, I don't think there's anything that's necessary. They have more salary-cap room than any team in our division, by far, for next season."

Falcons general manager Rich McKay has said he wants specific information before he could endorse financial aid for the Saints in free agency.

"The bottom line is going to be dollars," said Bucs personnel executive Doug Williams, a native of Zachary just outside of Baton Rouge. "You can talk facility, you can talk locale, anything you want. Free agency has become a money-driven situation."

Meanwhile, the Saints soldier on.

They are being evicted from the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, the closest thing to a home they have known, to make way for the NCAA volleyball tournament. The locker room moves to a high school baseball field, the weight room to a tent on the field's parking lot. The front-office staff will shift to a city water works building.

The Saints have played five "home" games in three states this season. In Week 2, a home game against the Giants was played in the Giants' home stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Two games were played at the Alamodome, two in LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

The Saints play once more at the Alamodome and twice at Tiger Stadium, including Sunday against the Bucs. Last month, a game against the Bears drew fewer than 33,000 to LSU's 92,000-seat stadium, leaving players as empty as the seats.

"It felt like you could hear the other team talking on the other sideline," Smith said.

It's likely games will be played in San Antonio and Baton Rouge again next season. Reports indicate the Louisiana Superdome, damaged considerably by the storm and during use as a shelter, could be ready by the end of the 2006, creating a possible third location.

Tagliabue, who will attend his third Saints game of the season Sunday, will tour New Orleans on Monday to assess the Superdome and the team's facility in nearby Metairie, La. Amid reports owner Tom Benson would like to relocate the franchise permanently, Tagliabue seems committed to keeping the Saints in Louisiana.

The Saints can only wait.

"Nobody knows anything," coach Jim Haslett said. "I'm in the same boat as everybody else. It's up to the NFL and the league office, and we really don't know anything."

--Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.

[Last modified December 2, 2005, 07:51:08]

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