Saints' future remains one big question mark

Even before Saints owner Tom Benson issued his latest hasty and ill-conceived proclamation, a Sunday night e-mail missive to commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other NFL officials in which he insisted he will never return to his nomadic franchise's part-time digs in Baton Rouge, many loyalists in the Crescent City figured their favorite team's future in New Orleans was about as appetizing as an overbaked crescent roll.

Or, at best, as messy as one of those beignets they serve at Café du Monde.

"They can pour as much [powdered sugar] on it as they want," said New Orleans native Montrose Randall, "but they ain't coming back. At least no time soon. Talk is cheap, and bringing the Saints back, and fixing everything up to allow them to come back, that isn't, is it? There's so many things on the to-do list here before you ever get down to the one marked 'football,' you know, real-world stuff, for real people, that it isn't funny. Football isn't a big priority. So until I see some action, the ball on the field all teed up and ready to be kicked off, I won't believe anything. Because the talking, man, it don't mean [anything]."

For the Saints and their legion of holdover fans, however, words do mean something.

Three words in particular, a trinity comprising 11 syllables that sound similar, but which are anything but, seem to define the Saints' potential in the delta city of their birth and how the team's future is determined: Sense, sensibility and sensitivity. They are key, absolutely crucial, to the Saints' fate.

The sense to render sage, big-picture decisions that weigh factors from every angle. A sensibility born of pragmatism. And the sensitivity to appreciate the history, tradition and lineage of the franchise, to recognize the sacrifices made by the city of New Orleans and its NFL fans, and to carefully factor those elements into the equation.

It makes for a difficult trifecta of convergence, and an even tougher call. Which is why some Saints fans have renamed their hometown The Big Uneasy.

"Everybody wants the so-called 'right thing' to be done, and that's as it should be," said Saints offensive tackle Wayne Gandy. "But the right thing isn't always the easiest thing to accomplish. There are a lot of things to be considered here."

Among them: Can Benson survive financially in a state that includes just one Fortune 500 corporation and which struggled mightily to meet its commitments to the Saints that are part of a pricey, 10-year subsidies deal forged between the team and former Gov. Mike Foster in 2001? If the Saints come marching back into New Orleans, to what, exactly, are they returning, and what is the economic future of a city that may not finish remaking itself for a decade? Can the team sell tickets to what figures to be a reduced populace? Is the NFL prepared to buttress the franchise during a difficult build-up period?

"And those [questions]," said one team official, "are just scratching the surface. Right now, 'no' would be the answer to a lot of those questions ... but we'll see."

Benson certainly hasn't endeared himself to fans and city officials with some of his words and actions, and while he may have felt justified in shoving a television camera in Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday, the act didn't play well back home or in the league office. The Saints' owner, who made several rash statements in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is difficult to defend at times. One staffer insists Benson told employees the club would never return to New Orleans, and former executive vice president Arnold Fielkow, recently dismissed by Benson, was forced to extinguish numerous brush fires. There were times, however, when it was clear his frustration had bubbled over and his words and actions could have been excused.

The perception of brusqueness and insensitivity some have seen in Benson, though, hardly has enhanced his image. And there are some who wish Benson simply would sell the team and do one of his famous parasol dances into oblivion. What they don't want is for him to take his franchise with him. That said, like any owner, Benson has a right to run the Saints as a business and to expect a return on his investment, something league officials sometimes conveniently overlook when they opine so blithely about the need to lock the franchise into New Orleans.

In the blocks surrounding the Superdome, which by even the most optimistic estimates won't be fit for play until next October, few businesses have reopened. Traffic is sparse in the area. A spokesman for Hyatt said the company's New Orleans property, located across a walkway from the Superdome, has canceled reservations through March and can't say when booking will resume. The city's primary industry, travel and tourism, essentially is nonexistent. The infrastructure remains fragmented, at best.

Indeed, it's hard even for those who are anything but sympathetic to Benson to fathom how he can operate in such a financially blighted environment. And even harder still to reconcile supporting a professional sports franchise in a city still struggling to provide the most basic human services.

"It isn't a mom-and-pop operation anymore, the NFL, and while it's not the popular stance, Benson is simply looking out for his best interests," emphasized sports economist Shelly D. Stuart. "If a guy owns a jazz club in New Orleans, or the restaurant where they make the best jambalaya, and the neighborhood where his business is doesn't get built back up, then what incentive does he have to return? Whatever happens, people say, has to make sense. But for Benson, it has to make dollars and cents. You just can't erase that reality because you're dealing with such an emotional issue."

But Saints fans just don't want four decades of NFL history expunged, period.

In a city as celebrated for its majestic cathedrals as it is infamous for its tawdry taverns, Randall, a self-employed cabbie on most days but a self-styled "ticket broker" (read: scalper) on those occasions when a game is scheduled in the Superdome, said the city's NFL fans now lean on both those establishments to get them through Saints-less Sundays.

According to Randall, who also dabbles in real estate and owns three homes, including one in the severely stricken Ninth Ward, the sports fans who have come back to the city frequent the churches on Sunday mornings, in part to whisper a prayer for the Saints' eventual return. And then, said Randall, they retreat to Bourbon Street to watch the Saints on television, playing their "home" games in New Jersey or San Antonio or Baton Rouge, and drown their sorrows at the prospect their beloved team will never be back.

But mixing Hail Marys in the morning with hurricanes -- still the city's potent drink of choice, despite the wrath of Katrina -- in the afternoon isn't a combination likely to ensure the Saints will return to New Orleans. Instead, it's sense, sensibility and sensitivity that ultimately will determine the franchise's address.

And truth be told, despite Tagliabue's best intentions and Benson's bombast, those three components, at least for now, are far more volatile than they are viable. At present, there are only these realities: The NFL, the preeminent professional sports entity of this or any other generation, hasn't contracted since players were wearing leather helmets and the single-wing formation was the rage. The league isn't about to reduce to 31 franchises, which means the Saints will be delivered somewhere, not dissolved.

So where might that be?

"There's no solution today that is acceptable," acknowledged Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "There certainly aren't any easy answers, are there?"

One solution posited by Mayor Ray Nagin is the "Cleveland Deal," a formula in which the Saints could move, but the city of New Orleans would retain the name of the team, with a promise by the NFL to deliver an expansion or replacement franchise. A spokesman for Nagin reiterated this week that would be a viable alternative. But the commissioner already has indicated a "Cleveland Deal" isn't an option. And Saints fans, even if it means getting rid of Benson by permitting him to relocate, probably don't want to wait five or six years for a new team.

And there is this: The current 32-team league composition is cozily symmetrical. Most owners, who are desperate to find new revenue streams and hardly anxious to split television-rights fees with another partner, don't seem inclined to expand right now. So the Saints remain the equivalent of the pink elephant in the room, the big, intrusive item no one wants to deal with and everyone attempts to just step around, but the nuisance that won't go away.

"Well, that's good," said Randall, "because we don't want them to go away."

But one AFC owner, who is part of the eight-man committee assembled by Tagliabue to help counsel Benson and the league on New Orleans' plight, noted: "There's no way they can go back, and there's no way they can't go back. The honest-to-God truth is that none of us has a clue. The commissioner included. He has a preference, no doubt, about the situation, but he doesn't have a defined way of making it happen. None of us does."

The preference, often articulated by Tagliabue, is to keep the Saints right where they are. Or, more accurately, where they were before Katrina basically transformed them into a franchise on wheels. But even some of his top lieutenants concede the commissioner's primary vision still lacks 20/20 focus.

At Sunday's game in Baton Rouge, the Saints' first contest back in the state since abandoning their Metairie, La., facility before the preseason finale and then bivouacking for the rest of the season in San Antonio, the commissioner termed "nonsensical" reports by ESPN and the Washington Post that the league would prefer the franchise fill the void that has existed in Los Angeles since the mid-1990s. A man whose often-dismissive mien frequently belies his deep-rooted love for the game (and its history) and overshadows his sense for what is right, Tagliabue in reality couldn't say anything but that.

And he may have been bantering semantics, since Los Angeles doesn't necessarily want the Saints, certainly with Benson as the owner.

Most league owners surveyed this week on the Saints' situation agreed the commissioner was merely enunciating the expedient. There was, though, a disingenuous element to the commissioner's adamant stance. At the risk of being defensive, the broadcast report by ESPN's Chris Mortensen was deeply sourced. At the risk of appearing petty, Tagliabue knows that when the league wants something leaked, the Washington Post is one of its favorite conduits.

Still, the commissioner referred to the Saints as "Louisiana's team" and reiterated that the NFL's priority is to keep the franchise in the state and to be a part of the rebuilding of the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast. One source privy to the meeting between the commissioner and state and city officials said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco told Tagliabue the area "couldn't afford" to have the Saints relocate. At the same time, there remain serious doubts about whether the state can afford to keep the franchise under its current terms.

The 2001 deal hammered out by two men who no longer wield influence, Foster and Fielkow, calls for the Saints to receive $186.5 million in state-subsidized inducements through 2010. Tagliabue suggested Sunday the arrangement, which he called "flawed," will have to be revisited, which must have been sweet to the ears of Blanco, who has tried unsuccessfully to get Benson to reopen negotiations on a deal that hamstrung the state even before Katrina struck and essentially redirects moneys now desperately needed in many other areas.

Tagliabue also hinted at a plan by which the Saints would market themselves more as a regional franchise. But the Gulf Coast devastation stretches a long way, and neighboring states that already are home to some Saints season ticket patrons, such as Mississippi and Alabama, have considerable work to be done as well before they can enjoy the luxury of being preoccupied by football. On paper, such an expanded marketing strategy might be sound, for sure. In application, it would take several years to develop, and the Saints and Benson require much shorter-term remedies.

So someone who knows a few things about sense, sensibility and sensitivity had better have a monster of a brainstorm, one capable of diminishing the catastrophic clout of a hurricane. "When you find that person," said one league owner, "send [Tagliabue] the name, will you? Because, at some point, we've got to home in on some [options]."

There seem to be, most agree, only three options: One, the Saints play home games in Baton Rouge (provided, of course, security around Benson is upgraded) until they can return to New Orleans permanently. Two, Benson somehow summons up the necessary votes to move his franchise to San Antonio, his second home of sorts, and a city where he has strong personal and professional relationships. Or three, the Saints, with or without the current ownership, fill the hole in the lucrative Los Angeles market.

Conventional wisdom aside, the last of those three is perhaps the most remote, and for any number of reasons. For openers, the train to Los Angeles, seemingly on a fast track only a year or so ago, has slowed considerably. While league officials will never admit it, they are hardly enamored with the two stadium options currently on the table, a rebuilt Los Angeles Coliseum or a new facility in Anaheim, and would like to draw Pasadena and the Rose Bowl back into the picture.

Forget a franchise in Los Angeles, either via expansion or relocation, until the stadium issue is resolved. And forget Benson, too, since most Angelinos would prefer to have no team at all than one they regard as dubiously managed. There are some owners, too, who aren't in a hurry to see the Los Angeles market filled, because once the city has a team those owners immediately lose leverage in the cities where they now operate.

And finally, Los Angeles officials don't want to be seen as the vultures who swooped in on a bad situation and stole away the carcass of a franchise in distress.

"It clearly would be bad form ... to reach out to New Orleans or to anyone who is in distress," said Bill Chadwick, the president of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission.

The scavenger approach, however, hasn't slowed San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger, who has attempted to maintain some sense of sensitivity and decorum even as he openly courts Benson and the Saints. If there has been anyone in this passion play with even looser lips than Benson, it's been Hardberger, who has battled with Tagliabue over the commissioner's suggestions that San Antonio is a small-market city that can't support an NFL franchise but that obviously covets one.

Hardberger recently insisted the city has begun discussions with Benson about moving his team. He lambasted Baton Rouge for its comparative lack of support in selling tickets to Saints games there. And San Antonio business leaders, certainly with the blessing of the mayor, have begun to explore financial options for either building the Saints a new stadium or dramatically upgrading the Alamodome. Of course, San Antonio isn't about to move ahead without the promise of a team, said Jim Greenwood of the Valero Energy Corporation, and Benson can't make such a deal without tacit league approval.

And while playing in Baton Rouge seems feasible, even through the '06 season, the fact is LSU authorities aren't in concert on whether they want the team there. There is notable disagreement between the university's chancellor and athletic director over the benefits of hosting the NFL franchise, and last weekend's imbroglio with Benson figures to only exacerbate an already testy situation.

In his e-mail to the commissioner, Benson called his Baton Rouge visit "a total disaster" and "a miserable experience." Doesn't exactly sound like Benson is as "supportive of what [the NFL] is doing" in Baton Rouge, as Tagliabue claims he is.

To relocate his franchise, Benson first must meet criteria established by the league in the wake of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis' incessant city-hopping. That might not be exceedingly difficult if some sources, who indicated to ESPN.com that the Saints have already lost $30 million in 2005, are accurate in their assessments. But then Benson also must mollify Tagliabue, who seems inalterably opposed to San Antonio as a landing spot, and receive approval from three-quarters of the league membership.

Hardly the unpopular owner some media outlets have portrayed him as being, Benson can probably make a pretty compelling case that he can't survive in New Orleans, at least not until the city is rebuilt, which could take a decade. But it takes only nine votes against a move to kill it, and one NFC team president told ESPN.com he feels the league would try to coax Benson into selling the team before it would facilitate any exit strategy.

There were whispers this week that Benson -- whose granddaughter, co-owner/executive Rita LeBlanc, is the supposed heir to the franchise -- has stipulated in his will that the club be sold when he dies. But that is unsubstantiated, and with Benson in reasonably good health, an ownership change is hardly imminent. Which means the league is going to have to deal with Benson and the Saints issue, and sooner, rather than later.

"When is the proper time?" asked one owner, rhetorically, this week. "We keep saying, 'Oh, not yet, it's too soon. Give things a chance to settle down. Let the dust settle and let the city begin the [rebuilding] process.' But then you hear the government speaking in terms of years, and not just a couple years, to get that city fixed the right way. We can't wait that long for answers and, in fairness, neither can Tom Benson or that city's football fans."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.