NEW ORLEANS (AP) – If only a five-game losing streak and what looks like yet another season of futility were all the New Orleans Saints and their fans had to worry about.

The displaced, travel-weary Saints finally got a rest lastweek. Their bye is a break from football, at least, but probably not from distractions including uprooted families, damaged property and Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in the community the Saints expected to be part of when training camp opened.

Like many of their fans, players haven’t been able to live in their own homes or work out of their regular headquarters since late August.

They’ve dealt with temporary living arrangements, makeshift practice facilities, finding new schools for children and pondering questions about the very future of the team. Disgruntled owner Tom Benson has been playing his own games with Louisiana, the NFL and his team’s temporary home of San Antonio. He’s done little to dispel the notion that last Sunday could be a preview of what every weekend might be like in the NFL of the future, with no game involving a New Orleans team.

Leaders on the field such as wide receiver Joe Horn have been reluctant to blame Katrina-related distractions for poor play, but won’t entirely discount the storm’s effect.

“In reality it may be a factor. I can’t tell you that. I’m not a psychologist. But I’m not going to use that as our excuse,” Horn said. “If the Saints could put together a consistent four-quarter football game, we would be 7-2 easy. We’ve been giving games away because of our inconsistencies.”

Two Saints losses came on late field goals – one in overtime and one in the final seconds of regulation. New Orleans (2-7) led another game in St. Louis in the fourth quarter before turning over the ball.

“Talentwise it’s here, but we’re making way too many mistakes out there, and once we correct those things, I think the winning will come,” said running back Antowain Smith, who has been starting for the injured Deuce McAllister and gained 110 yards last week.

If they hope to have Jim Haslett back as coach next season, the Saints will need to correct those mistakes immediately. It may be unfair to blame Haslett, but he is well on his way to missing the playoffs for a fifth straight year.

“You have to win them all” to have a chance for the playoffs, Haslett said this week. “It’s possible. I’d like to just win one right now. … With our team, we’ll come out and we’ll work hard and we’ll play hard. Whether we do the right things all the time, obviously we haven’t. That’s my job to fix.”

The backdrop to all this is the turnaround Louisiana’s political and business leaders will have to pull off to keep the team. Benson has made matters more complicated by alienating himself from so many here. After receiving tens of millions of dollars worth of subsidies and favorable lease deals from the state, he has been noncommittal about returning to Louisiana, even seeking to cancel the lease at the team’s suburban training headquarters after it was used as a base for relief operations.

A permanent move out of New Orleans seemed imminent a few weeks ago before NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue stepped in. Then Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said the NFL cannot take football from Louisiana. Now it appears the Saints will play in Louisiana at least through 2006.

Tagliabue said Benson is on board with the NFL’s plan to make the Saints a leader in rebuilding the New Orleans area, although Benson has yet to echo those sentiments himself. The biggest question is how the team can continue to make money in a place that could be reeling for years from the worst natural disaster in the country’s history.

Tagliabue has suggested marketing the team regionally, in Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Jackson, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., all within a three-hour drive of New Orleans.

Gary Roberts, a Tulane University law professor who specializes in the business of pro sports, agrees.

“There’s no question turning the Saints into a success in the region will be a challenge, but one that will be met if they have an owner with vision, credibility and a willingness to try it,” Roberts said. “The Saints don’t have an owner like that right now.”

AP-ES-11-10-05 1456EST


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