The French Quarter, Bourbon Street, Preservation Hall, Tom Benson.
What's wrong with that sentence?
Pat O'Brien's, Antoine's, Pascal's Manale, Tom Benson.
Sort of ruins your appetite, doesn't it?
In New Orleans, Tom Benson is as well known as any of those beloved tourist attractions. Yet all Benson did was buy a football team.
New Orleans' team. Its beloved Saints.
Forget for a moment all the restaurants and jazz joints and Creole mystique that makes N'awlins such a black-magical destination for those of us who have visited for Sugar and Super bowls. For many who live -- or lived -- there, the 38-year-old Saints just might have been dearer to their hearts than any of their internationally known landmarks.
I can't begin to relate to the losses of lives -- and lifes -- in this hurricane-ravaged region. Homes destroyed, identities lost. But I do know this: Nothing can reunite a community like a sports team.
Not just any team, though.
One that consistently makes its fans proud to be customers and residents of that team's city. One that always gives them hope. One that, after its most devastating losses, still makes its fans believe it has a plan and a clue.
One that is not owned by Tom Benson.
Benson is basically what's wrong with the Saints. Benson is why I wouldn't wish them back on New Orleans. Or on San Antonio. Or on Los Angeles.
Strictly from a sports perspective, Benson is why I feel sorry for New Orleans. And Benson is why I haven't been able to dredge up any sympathy for the crumbling Saints.
The cold, hard truth is that Hurricane Katrina merely postponed the inevitable collapse of Benson's team. Yes, after pulling off a season-opening 23-20 upset win at Carolina, the homeless Saints were being hailed as "America's Team." Now, they're 2-6, and even Saints fans are having a tough time caring about them.
The back-to-reality truth is that it took a natural disaster to turn coach Jim Haslett into a sympathetic figure and probably save his job. Poor Jim? Poor Saints fans.
The best thing that could happen to Saints fans is for their team to return to a remodeled Superdome next season with an overhauled management.
|The Big Uneasy|
Where will the Saints wind up? New Orleans? San Antonio? Somewhere else? Saints fans might not have a clue, but take heart: The NFL doesn't know either.
As in, no Benson.
No Mickey Loomis as general manager.
And -- heaven help Saints fans -- no more Aaron Brooks at quarterback.
My get-well wish for Louisiana -- as let-it-rain-diamonds as it might be -- is that Benson somehow will be shamed into selling the Saints to someone with the savvy and stability to turn them back into the pride of New Orleans. For now, you can buy only laughing stock in his Aints.
Then again, I brought up Benson's deficiencies the other day to an NFL general manager, who responded: "Well, he isn't alone. There are a number of Bensons in this league."
The late Tex Schramm, who for three decades ran the Dallas Cowboys (if not the league), once summed up the NFL's perennial losers this way: "You can't legislate intelligence."
Meaning, you can't pass enough last-shall-be-first rules to keep stupid owners from making stupid decisions. The league doesn't require prospective team buyers to go to Owner School or even to pass Football 101. All that matters is that a prospective owner has deep pockets, and that any skeletons are locked deep in his or her closet.
In fact, you get the feeling that the football-smart owners quietly rub their hands together and think, "Fresh meat," when they approve a Tom Benson.
Benson's only plus when he bought the Saints was that he is a New Orleans native. Yet he mostly made his nobody-to-somebody fortune owning car dealerships in San Antonio. The guy obviously has a rare instinct for how to make a profit selling cars. But he just as obviously has little feel for how to hire the right people and say and do the right things to create a winning atmosphere and football team.
In the two decades he has owned this team, the Saints have won a grand total of one playoff game. They haven't made the playoffs in five seasons, going on six. Benson has had more than enough time to figure it out.
A pro team isn't just a supply-and-demand business. It's the equivalent of a public trust. It's too bad that owners don't have to run for reelection every five years or so. Benson probably would have been forced to sell after his first or second term.
Until this season, Benson would have been best remembered for the goofy umbrella dance he did on the sidelines after home wins. Yet he received so much addictive attention for his "Benson Boogie" that he got hooked on the ego-inflating celebrity of owning the Saints in New Orleans.
By the way, I've been in the Superdome during seasons in which Benson's Saints were pretty good and treated their fans to some pretty great victories. That echo chamber could get as crazy-loud as any NFL stadium anywhere. I believe it still could.
Then again, I have no idea how quickly -- or if ever -- New Orleans can rebuild what was already a depressed economy. But my gut feeling about the Saints is that New Orleans could and would support an NFL team under new management.
How could Saints fans ever forgive Benson?
Several NFL insiders say the league is considering subsidizing the Saints' return to the Superdome. In the wake of the Katrina tragedy, that could merely be the "right thing" to consider for awhile. But realistically, how can Benson return to the city as owner?
Bodies were still floating in the flooded streets when Benson was dancing with San Antonio officials. Benson strongly suggested he wanted to make San Antonio the Saints' permanent home. Yes, it's possible he was merely trying to (1) sucker San Antonians into filling the Alamodome for the three "home" games the Saints are playing there, while (2) creating leverage to negotiate a much sweeter deal with the Superdome.
But as usual, Benson said all the wrong things. Handling the media is a crucial aspect of owning a sports franchise, and Benson consistently has sent the wrong message to fans: I'm not sure how to win, but you can bet I'm going to make money.
In fact, Benson managed to make Hornets owner George Shinn -- one of the most unlikable owners in the NBA -- look like, well, like a saint. Shinn's team finished dead last in attendance last season and almost certainly won't return to New Orleans. Yet as the Hornets transitioned to Oklahoma City, Shinn was careful to tread lightly on the battered psyche of New Orleans fans.
Benson fired vice president Arnold Fielkow, an outspoken proponent of keeping the team in New Orleans. Benson basically hailed San Antonio as the next great NFL city. And in truth, San Antonio/Austin, connected by a booming 70-mile corridor, probably could support what would be the third NFL team in Texas.
Yet that team would have to prove over time that it can provide as much bang for the buck as Jerry Jones' Cowboys do. San Antonio/Austin is still Cowboys country. Could Benson's team break that spell?
Not with the Boogie Man as owner.
In the last week, Benson has managed to have an even worse time of it than his team, which fell to Miami 21-6 in its return to Louisiana: a "home" game played at LSU in Baton Rouge. As Benson left Tiger Stadium, he swatted at a WWL-TV camera, grabbed the camera's microphone and had to be restrained from doing further damage. Benson reportedly was upset with a critical report done on him by the station.
Benson subsequently was caught on film engaged in a shouting match with a fan. According to a report at midweek, a frustrated Benson fired off an e-mail to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue late last Sunday saying, among other things, "I will not return to Baton Rouge for any reason."
Yet what did Benson expect from his return to the state he sold out? A hero's welcome?
Now he has begun to alienate some San Antonio fans and officials by taking out a full-page ad in Louisiana newspapers that claims no decision has been made about the future of the team. Is he trying to force San Antonio to build him a new stadium? Who knows or -- frankly -- cares?
All along, one of the prevailing NFL rumors has the Saints winding up in Los Angeles, or perhaps in San Diego with the Chargers moving to L.A.
But Tom Benson in L.A. would be a disaster for the NFL. Tom Arnold would get the part in the eventual TV movie.
No way Tagliabue could finally send that team to L.A., not with Benson presiding.
Ultimately, Benson is responsible for the wins and (mostly) losses. Benson made an excellent hire in GM Randy Mueller, then fired him in 2002 for making moves (such as the Ricky Williams trade to Miami) without getting Benson's blessing.
Haslett's teams have always had playoff-quality talent that underachieves. And that has a lot to do with the quarterback Haslett chose: the NFL's biggest QB tease, Brooks. Terrific athlete, rocket arm, very little idea how to win games. Aaron often looks as if he's in a Mel Brooks movie.
Signature play: Last season, Brooks got disoriented and threw a "forward" pass to a lineman who was behind him.
That summed up Benson's Saints.
Yet now, after controversial calls helped cost the Saints two games, and after tailback Deuce McAllister was lost for the season, it looks as if Benson will give Haslett a contract extension. If Haslett has proved anything so far, it's that he's just an over-emotional defensive coordinator who isn't enough of a leader to be a head coach.
The nightmare continues.
And it will end only if the Boogie Man cashes out and lets New Orleans have its team back.
Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.