Saints return to practice field

SAN ANTONIO -- Consummate creatures of habit, NFL players prefer structure and direction in their lives, and on a Monday afternoon in Texas the New Orleans Saints attempted to regain some semblance of order and to rediscover their collective football compass.

But even as coach Jim Haslett tried to point his team's focus northeast, toward Charlotte, N.C., and Sunday's season opener against the Panthers, there was a clear sense following the two-hour practice session at a high school field that some of the Saints still feel orphaned and somewhat directionless.

In the new military lexicon, they talk about getting troops' boots "on the ground." That was the goal of Haslett and his staff in putting the Saints in full pads and ratcheting up the tempo at what, under most normal circumstances, should have been a typically light Monday session. But things are anything but typical for the Saints these days and, from first-hand observation and interviews with veteran players, if the Saints indeed have their boots on the ground, their cleats aren't yet sufficiently rooted.

"There was a lot of careless stuff going on out there," assessed wide receiver Joe Horn. "I know I dropped a few balls. I mean, as hard as guys might have been trying to focus, it wasn't sharp yet. We've got to get better."

Asked to analyze the practice, Haslett paused, and then acknowledged that at least the team meetings in the morning were good. He also said he felt the practice was solid at the outset, that there were lapses of concentration in the middle, but that the tempo picked up toward the end of the workout.

He also emphasized that, to defeat the Panthers, the Saints will have to play an excellent game. Whether that is still possible, coming out of an early-week practice after which the adjective "sluggish" was often employed to describe the session, remains to be seen.

Certainly, the fact the Saints are facing the Panthers should be some benefit in grabbing New Orleans' focus. Games between the NFC South rivals characteristically are tough and physical and closely contested. Carolina loves to run the ball and Haslett has publicly vowed to get back to smashmouth football in 2005, with running back Deuce McAllister as a human battering ram.

"If you're looking for the game of the week," Haslett said, "then you'll want to tune in to this one, because it will go down to the wire. Our games with [Carolina] always do."

Indeed, four of the last five games in the series, and six of the last eight, have been determined by six points or less. The winning margin in five of the last eight games was four points or fewer. Although the Saints lost four of the last five matchups, their average margin of defeat in those games was six points.

Horn, though, disagreed that the Panthers will help rivet his team's attention or will make much difference in how the Saints prepare or perform on Sunday afternoon.

"The Panthers, they aren't going to feel sorry for us," Horn said. "I still know that, if I catch a pass, [Carolina defensive end] Julius Peppers is going to be chasing me all over the field, trying to knock my helmet off. So it doesn't matter. What does matter is it's football again, and we've got to get ready to play."

There were some veterans who felt the tempo and tenor at practice, even if performance was a bit ragged, was better than a week ago. Left offensive tackle Wayne Gandy said that last week, when the Saints practiced in San Jose, Calif., in advance of the preseason finale against Oakland, football was hardly on the minds of players. For the most part, Gandy said, players went through the motions and hurried to finish practice so that they could get back to their hotel rooms to watch coverage of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

"At least today," Gandy said, "it started to feel a little more like a football practice. Now, I can't tell you the concentration was 100 percent, because it wasn't. But it was closer to it than last week, when nobody talked about football at all. Last week, it was 'hurricane this' and 'hurricane that.' Today, there were actually guys talking about like, 'Well what if [Panthers wide receiver] Steve Smith runs this route?' There was football talk, OK, but we still have a long way to go before I can stand here and tell you it was normal."

Said wide receiver Michael Lewis, a New Orleans native and the player whose family was most affected by the hurricane: "No, it doesn't feel right yet. Everyone said, 'Well, once you get back on the field, it will come back to you and you'll be able to focus.' There was some of that but not for the whole practice."

Away from the San Antonio School District Springs Sports Complex practice site, the Saints are at least getting close to an NFL level of preparedness. The team is still shy of some equipment for the weight room. The coaches' offices in the convention center are doubling as meeting rooms and sometimes the coaching sessions are interrupted by telephones ringing in the rooms. There is still a shortage of copy machines and faxes. A few assistant coaches have decided, literally, to live at the Alamodome for now.

"Gee, other than that stuff," Haslett said, rolling his eyes, "we're up to speed, I guess."

Despite the logistical lunacy and the extreme circumstances under which the Saints are operating, the team will follow a normal work week. That means Tuesday is an off-day for the players, while coaches work on the Carolina game plan. Haslett is hopeful the team can hustle up enough copy machines to be able to distribute the blueprint for the Panthers in Wednesday morning's meetings.

Some players will visit Kelly USA, where about 10,000 evacuees are quartered, in the morning. Seven players went to the site early Sunday to help serve food and just shake hands with displaced New Orleans citizens. Others will spend the day trying to seek apartments or enroll their children in school. Horn acknowledged that he might go house hunting.

What he hopes, even more so, that he and his teammates discover is an equilibrium and passion that was missing in some segments of Monday's practice.

"It wasn't good at all today," Horn said. "That San Antonio was talking out there, man. It was easy to lose [concentration] and not focus. But we can't keep that up, no way. We've got to get back out there and get down to the business of football again."

Which, if Monday was any indication, might be more easily said than done.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.