Saints have deal to return to Louisiana in '06

An agreement in principle struck between owner Tom Benson and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue will return the New Orleans Saints to Louisiana for practice in 2006, and likely for the entire regular-season schedule.

"Today we are very pleased to advise our entire organization --
coaches, players and staff -- that we will be returning to Metairie in January," Benson said Friday in a memo circulated to the team. "We are working in Louisiana to play as many games as possible in the Superdome, which may be ready in September."

Under the accord, which is expected to be finalized soon, the Saints will return to their permanent practice facility in Metairie, La., just outside of New Orleans. The state-owned training complex was commandeered by FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and used as a staging area. Saints officials had previously contended that the facility was in disrepair, but the damage was not nearly as severe as originally indicated.

"[The talks] haven't always been amicable, and [Benson] still has some doubts about all of this, but it looks like they're going back [to Louisiana]," one owner advising the Saints said.

It is believed that, with the Saints in Metairie, the team will split its 2006 schedule between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The Superdome in New Orleans has been projected to be ready for play in November, but officials hope repairs can be accelerated in coming months.

"It's too early to say whether the games will be played at the
dome or in Louisiana," Tagliabue said Friday after meeting with
Saints players and coaches for about five hours.

Tagliabue addressed concerns among players at Friday's meeting
that they'd be returning for 2006, but with no guarantees past

"Our goal is to make it a multiyear effort," Tagliabue said. "There are a lot of things yet to be accomplished to make it more
than a one-year arrangement. There are a lot of chicken-and-egg
decisions. It's a complicated situation."

Asked whether the New Orleans market could support an NFL team
long term, he said, "We think it can, but it's not a slam-dunk."

League officials have said they hope to announce the Saints' schedule next month. But team officials were recently apprised an announcement might not come until March. The players have been outspoken about wanting to play their games in the community in which they are practicing.

Benson's memo said the team has already reviewed with the NFL the Saints' preliminary 2006 schedule and that it includes
"significantly reduced away-game travel."

Attendance for the four games played this season at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge was disappointing, averaging only slightly more than 40,000.

Three weeks ago, NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw advised the players not to renew their leases in San Antonio because the league was working hard to ensure their return to the Metairie facility for next season. That same day, however, in a separate session with players, Benson raised doubts about the return and reiterated that he might attempt to keep the team in San Antonio.

Benson has strong personal and professional ties to San Antonio, the suspicion remains that he would prefer to permanently relocate the franchise there. Benson fears that the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, a process expected to take years, will threaten the team's financial viability The Saints owner has told associates that he will lose $45 million for the 2005 season.

The league in general, and certainly Tagliabue in particular, have made it clear they prefer that the franchise remain in New Orleans, even if that means playing a portion of the 2006 schedule away from the Superdome. There have been reports that Benson, who would need approval from other owners to move his team, might considering suing the NFL for the right to relocate.

It appears that under the pending agreement the Saints will not return to San Antonio for any home games in 2006. The business community there has rallied around the team and has embraced the notion of having the Saints move to San Antonio permanently. Three games at the Alamodome averaged 62,666 fans, and Mayor Phil Hardberger has been a driving force in trying to lure the displaced franchise to his city.

While the efforts of San Antonio civic leaders may make no difference for 2006, it is believed that the agreement between Benson and Tagliabue is for next season only, and will be revisited after that. Given the blunted economic climate of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, it is conceivable that Benson will eventually attempt to relocate his team to San Antonio.

Asked whether Benson was reluctant to return to Louisiana amid suspicions he really wanted to move the team from New Orleans, Tagliabue said:

"Like everybody else, Mr. Benson has been dealing with things
he felt he never would have to deal with. He's been looking at all
alternatives, both pros and cons, short-term and long-term."

But Tagliabue also said it was Benson who came to him just before Christmas and urged returning the team to the training facility.

"With FEMA about to clear the facility and the National Guard
would do the same, he felt [returning] would be a positive thing
and a first step," Tagliabue said.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who criticized Benson in October when San Antonio officials said they were working with the owner to keep the Saints in Texas permanently, offered a measured response to the announcement the team would return to Louisiana.

"After 30-plus years of supporting the Saints, it is somewhat encouraging that the Saints will play the next season in our city and state," Nagin said. "We are happy that New Orleanians who have lost so much will have an NFL team next season to call their own. ... We look forward to the day when the Saints organization will fully commit to this community and be a vital part of our recovery for many years to come."

Saints players have been critical of the league's overall handling of the situation. Players feel the NFL has not supported them and are upset that Tagliabue has not met with them until now, on their final day of practice for this season. The league office pointed out that Tagliabue twice previously requested to meet with players but that his efforts were rebuffed.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider. The Associated Press contributed to this report.