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tiggerpolice 01-02-2006 04:33 PM

Saints finally reach end of long, torturous season
 
TAMPA -- The last day of the New Orleans Saints' season followed a familiar pattern.

There was optimism early. There were obstacles in the middle, most of which proved too tough to overcome. And by the end, there was reflection, a group of players and coaches wondering just how they got here and why it all had to happen to them.

"It's been a long season," Saints tailback Antowain Smith said. "A long season, man, and a frustrating season."

Other teams have expressed relief over the end of a 3-13 year, which for the Saints came Sunday with a 27-13 loss to the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.

But none shared the reasons these Saints expressed Sunday afternoon. None of them endured a phenomenon such as Hurricane Katrina, which in August hit the Gulf Coast and forced the Saints, their families and their franchise to relocate, many to another state.

"You never want the season to end," Saints safety Dwight Smith said. "But you wouldn't want anybody to go through this."

Smith and his teammates played no games at the Superdome, which suffered structural damage in the storm. Their eight home games were split among three states -- one at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, four at Tiger Stadium on LSU's campus in Baton Rouge, La., and three at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

But problems existed for the Saints the other six days of the week, too. The team shifted its headquarters to San Antonio but dealt with constant struggles on and off the field.

Even this final week wasn't routine. Friday, they learned that the team would return to suburban New Orleans, maybe as soon as January. Owner Tom Benson pledged the team would play home games in the Superdome next fall.

The day also featured a visit from Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who attended a long-anticipated meeting with the players, who vented a season's worth of troubles in the session.

To accommodate the session, Coach Jim Haslett shifted practice to 8 a.m. that morning.

"I've been in the league 12 years, and we've never practiced in the season at 8 a.m.," offensive tackle Wayne Gandy said. "We had the lights on out there and everything."

The Saints have practiced in parking lots this season, dressed at facilities high school teams would deem dingy and rarely held Saturday walk-throughs and meetings typical to most teams.

Season's end appeared to free the players and coaches from team responsibilities and give them time to tend to their families. But after losing to the Bucs, Haslett fielded questions about his future as the Saints coach.

After five months of seemingly constant change, most of the Saints know that some of the changes are only starting.

"One thing you learn, especially after this year, [is] that the only thing for certain in life is that you are going to die, and you are going to go to hell or heaven," Haslett said. "If I have learned nothing else, I learned things and change fast, and you've got to be able to adjust on the fly.

"My own personal self, I am ready for anything."

Dave Curtis can be reached at dcurtis@orlandosentinel.com


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