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Archive for Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Analysis: Moving game anywhere will hurt Saints

September 7, 2005

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Maybe the New Orleans Saints will beat the New York Giants on Sept. 19 and make moot the questions about why their "home opener" is at the home of their opponent.

But right now, a lot NFL people wonder why the league moved the game to New Jersey and gave the Giants an extra home game.

"I'd be smart not to comment on that," Dallas coach Bill Parcells said.

That's the public Parcells.

It's safe to say the private Parcells is miffed, because a team in his division gets a better chance to win a game. It's also safe to say that opinion is shared by coaches of many marginal NFC teams (including the Saints) who might be competing with the Giants for a wild-card berth in a conference where two teams with 8-8 records made the playoffs last season.

OK, there weren't a lot of options.

The decision on where to play the game was presented to several neutral owners and to the competition committee, headed by Atlanta general manager Rich McKay and Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher, before it was approved. The consensus was that the Meadowlands was the best option, based on doing what was best for many evacuees from Louisiana now in Texas.

Saints season ticket holders will have first call to buy tickers for the game, along with any fans who already purchased tickets. After that, Giants season ticket holders get the next call - virtually guaranteeing the full effects of a Giants home game.

Consider other choices for the game:

1. San Antonio. There are about 25,000 people from New Orleans there. The Alamodome holds 65,000 fans, just the same number as the Superdome.

San Antonio was ruled out because the city still is housing refugees and despite its capacity, the Alamodome would need more preparations to host an NFL game - from medical facilities to communications.

2. Baton Rouge. It's 80 miles from New Orleans and, unlike San Antonio, is considered part of the Saints' market. In fact, tentative plans are to play as much of the Saints' home schedule there as possible.

But right now, the city's population has doubled from 250,000 to 500,000 with storm victims and is much too occupied with rescue efforts to deal with football. LSU, scheduled to play Arizona State this weekend at home, shifted its game to Tempe, Ariz., to get out of the way.

3. Houston, 360 miles from New Orleans. Yes, the Texans are home Sunday, just as the Jets are using Giants Stadium that day. But the game is being played Monday night.

Houston was considered, but finally ruled out for the same reason as Baton Rouge.

"We believed that the first priority was not to interfere with any relief efforts that were accommodating the evacuees, and that included Houston, it included San Antonio, it certainly included Baton Rouge," Joe Browne, the league's executive vice president for communications and public affairs, said.

On the other hand, the Astrodome is across a parking lot from Reliant Stadium.

What could be better therapy for displaced people worrying about how and when they will resume their devastated lives than to walk across the street to see the Saints play, preferably for free? For all the talk of financial contributions to the relief effort from the game, there's a lot to be said for the contribution to the morale of 25,000 people living on cots in an antiquated dome.

Also, don't discount the Benson factor.

Saints owner Tom Benson has been fighting for years with the state of Louisiana for a new stadium. He has threatened to move the Saints or sell them to a buyer who might move them to Los Angeles, where the NFL has pledged to put a team. He has auto dealerships and banks in San Antonio, owns a ranch outside the city and wouldn't mind moving them there, although that probably wouldn't meet much favor with the Cowboys, the Texans or the NFL office.

In a sense, Katrina forced the decision that Benson had been threatening to make - it got the Saints out of the Superdome, most likely forever.

So Benson hasn't made a sound about the transfer of the game to New York and the league's plans for a Monday night doubleheader that also features the regularly scheduled game in Dallas between the Redskins and Cowboys. A year from now, his team might be in Los Angeles anyway, with him or without him.

Yes, the two games Monday night provide almost five hours to spotlight hurricane relief. But for a league that thrives on competitive balance, three of those hours may be devoted to just a bit of competitive imbalance.

On paper, the switch is worth about a touchdown to the Giants. The normal home-team edge given by the oddsmakers is three points; take those away, and give them to the Giants for playing before their own fans in the Meadowlands.

That's even if the NFL puts some black-and-gold piping to dress things up and has "When the Saints go Marching In" played to welcome the home visitors. And even if, as is likely, 78,000 Giants fans give the New Orleans team a resounding ovation during the introductions.

Maybe it's not a big thing: The Saints were 5-3 on the road last season, 3-5 at home. Home teams won "just" 56 percent of the games last season. And league officials say the Saints have been assured that no "home" game against division opponents - Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta - will be played in the other team's stadium.

"If they think they're playing on the road every game," Saints coach Jim Haslett said of his players, "we'll probably win a lot more games."

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