Saints Finish Off Tumultuous Season
Three wins. Thirteen defeats. More than 1,300 real-life losses. That is how the New Orleans Saints plan to put their 2005 season in perspective. The Saints (3-13) wish they could say Hurricane Katrina had nothing to do with their disappointing season. The players would like to tell you that no matter what, they are professional athletes who should block out distractions. Their pride tells them not to make excuses, but logic says the Saints should be granted any spoken, or unspoken, excuse they want.

New Orleans' inconceivable season came to a merciful end after a 27-13 loss against the Bucs on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The road loss seemed fitting for a team that played four "home" games in Baton Rouge, three in San Antonio and one at the home of the New York Giants. The Saints lived as gypsies after Katrina struck Aug. 29. They never had a permanent practice facility and were even kicked out of the Alamodome in San Antonio because of the NCAA women's volleyball tournament. Their locker rooms were relocated to a high school baseball dugout in San Antonio, while hotels beds replaced homes.

"What we went through is minute if you compare it to what the people of New Orleans went through. People who lived down where the levies broke lost everything. We were lucky enough to get out and if we had some damage, we could pay for it," Saints running back Aaron Stecker said. "When I think about it, yeah we're 3-13, but we tried to win every week. We really had it pretty good. I'm proud of everybody and I'm proud of this team. It will be a memory of a lifetime. People from the outside looking in won't understand it because they weren't a part of it, but this was a great honor."

The Saints symbolically honored their city with Sunday's effort, even with the odds stacked against them. Four key starters for New Orleans were inactive for the game because of injuries. Then receiver Joe Horn suffered a hamstring injury early against the Bucs and did not return; receiver Donte' Stallworth became dehydrated and needed three liters of IV before the game; receiver Az-Zahir Hakim pulled his hamstring and receiver Devery Henderson suffered a groin and hamstring injury.

With nothing to play for but pride, New Orleans fought for that consolation gift as if it were the NFC South divisional title. Trailing 17-13 early in the fourth quarter, the Saints seemingly received a break after linebacker Ronald McKinnon intercepted Bucs quarterback Chris Simms after defensive end Will Smith tipped the ball. However, Tampa Bay challenged and it was ruled McKinnon never had possession, reversing the call. The Bucs then capped a 10-play, 66-yard drive with Matt Bryant's 26-yard field goal with 7:21 left, increasing New Orleans' deficit to 20-13. The Saints never came any closer to a fourth win.

"This is not a 3-13 football team. They have gone through a lot. I'm proud of what they have accomplished off the field and what they accomplished playing hard and doing everything right. I'm not happy with our record, but if you'd seen the circumstances, the things that they went through, you'd be proud of this team," Saints coach Jim Haslett said. "Even this last week, the commissioner came to town on Friday and we moved practice to 8 a.m. We didn't have meetings on Saturday. We didn't have a walk-through Saturday and haven't had one all year and our guys came out and played hard. You kind of roll with the punches this year and I'm proud of that."

Now New Orleans can move past its final, yet inconsequential, loss. "It's been a long year. I can honestly say yeah [I'm glad the season is over] because it has truly been a long and frustrating year," running back Antowain Smith said.

Anwar Richardson, The Tampa Tribune 2 January 2006