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tiggerpolice 08-16-2005 02:05 PM

When will the Saints' faithful get just reward?
When will the Saints' faithful get just reward?
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
John DeShazier

The summation offered by Saints coach Jim Haslett in the aftermath of a 34-15 loss in the exhibition opener was perfectly sensible.

Don't go into sky-is-falling overload, he said lightheartedly. It was the first game -- an exhibition game, at that, with not even the slightest bearing on the standings that really count. Don't make too much of the Saints being run over by the Seahawks, or the turnovers committed, or the lack of turnovers forced Friday night at the Superdome.

There's plenty of time for the Saints to be the Saints they swear they are.

Except that, as coach of the Saints, he should know better than expecting levelheadedness by now. He should know that that kind of logic doesn't necessarily register with his team's fan base. And, of course, he should know why.

The team is as guilty of promoting expectations as its fans.

Here, where hundreds of thousands worship at the football alter, and minicamps and coaching sessions and all those non-mandatory (wink, wink) team workouts are treated as a step short of game situations, people tend to take it all seriously, not just the parts a head coach gives the OK to take seriously. And that's due in large part to coaches who often approach the workouts as necessities, meticulously noting which players look new and improved even though no one is hitting anyone.

Hopes are high, even for glorified scrimmages that are priced and hyped like regular-season games. They are significantly high for the Saints, given the fact that the NBA Hornets, Class AAA Zephyrs and city colleges and universities all are trying to cut small slices from a pie that belongs to the Saints.

So when the franchise creates a slogan framed around asking fans to have "faith," as it has this season, the natural response from fans, who have witnessed one playoff win in franchise history, is to ask when haven't they had faith?

And it's to question if it isn't a tad twisted to ask that they have faith but to temper expectations, even for exhibition games.

Granted, four consecutive non-playoff seasons probably have made antsy a fan base that's looking to latch onto a sliver of hope anywhere it can get it. The last granules of patience have trickled to the bottom of the hourglass. After all, none of the four years was considered a rebuilding season, at least a handful of respected people "in the know" labeled the Saints a division-winning or playoff-caliber team, and, repeatedly, the talent of the troops, the prowess of the staff and the quality of the draft were touted.

Perfect and sensible summations get buried under that. Logic, like pooh-poohing exhibition results, can come across as nonsense.

Is there logic to Haslett's words? Of course.

Anyone who believes winning exhibition games means a team carries momentum into the regular season needs only to remember the first year of Mike Ditka, when the Saints barreled to a 3-1 record in exhibition games and followed with a 6-10 regular-season run. Haslett's 2002 team went 3-1 in the games that didn't count, then missed out on the playoffs with a 9-7 record because it lost its last three that did.

Plus, if you're Haslett and anyone else associated with the Saints, the sooner Friday is forgotten, the quicker fans believe it had little meaning beyond the first 15 to 20 minutes of action, the better.

But separation isn't so easy for a franchise that wants to be stamped as a contender and a fan base longing to do just that.

After requesting faith, it's not realistic to hope believers can dial back the expectations that accompany the faith.

Even when the games don't count.

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