GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers may not have been consulted as to their preference for where their Sept. 12 regular-season opener against the New Orleans Saints would be relocated, but they’re not exactly complaining with the decision to move the game to Jacksonville, Florida.
For while they may have to deal with some unpleasant Florida heat, they won’t have to deal with the overwhelming crowd noise Saints fans can generate inside the Caesars Superdome in Louisiana.
The Saints, who have moved their daily operations to the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex in the wake of Hurricane Ida, chose the Jacksonville Jaguars’ home stadium of TIAA Bank Field after a scheduling conflict with an upcoming concert meant the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium wouldn’t be an option.
“I don't think we had a whole lot of say,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said Wednesday morning. “Obviously they worked with us, but with this being a New Orleans home game, it wasn’t a lot of say from our view. (We’d) love to have it here, though. (That) would’ve been nice.”
The alternative isn’t the worst, though, and it means for the second straight year the Packers won’t have to deal with how loud the Superdome can be.
Last year, it was because the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NFL to play many of its early-season games in empty or near-empty stadiums, and the Packers’ first two road games were against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and at the Superdome against the Saints.
The Packers beat the Vikings 43-34 and the Saints 37-30 in front of empty seats. In those two games, quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 53 of 76 passes (69.7%) for 647 yards with seven touchdowns and no interceptions (126.4 passer rating) to jumpstart his third NFL MVP season.
While surely there will be Saints fans in attendance in Jacksonville, it won’t be anything close to the home-field advantage they have at the Superdome.
“There are some positives, that it probably won’t be quite as loud,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur acknowledged. “But the negative is that it’s hard to simulate that kind of heat, so our guys are going to have to do a great job of hydrating and taking care of their bodies all week.”
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Jeff Duncan, the Saints did their homework in picking Jacksonville.
“We’re conscious of everything when it comes to preparing for an opponent,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told local reporters during a conference call Wednesday about the move. “There’s just so many variables. I don’t want to get into all of the variables. The main thing is to have a suitable place to play that both teams have access to.”
But citing three sources familiar with the Saints’ process, Duncan reported the Saints chose Jacksonville over two other Florida locations — Miami and Tampa Bay, whose stadiums are also available that day — because they wanted to find the least-desirable vacation destination for Packers fans given the fan base’s well-earned reputation for traveling well.
Not only is Jacksonville less of a garden spot than South Beach or Tampa Bay, but it’s harder to get to. The Saints went so far as to enlist one staffer to look up Green Bay flights on Expedia and compare the difference in costs and itineraries between Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa. Jacksonville wasn’t just the least appealing destination, it also was the most expensive and most challenging with flight options.
Tickets for the game go on sale for Saints season ticketholders and Saints and Jaguars annual suiteholders at 10 a.m. Thursday, according to NewOrleansSaints.com.
Tickets for the general public go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday.
Tickets will be sold through Ticketmaster, the Jacksonville Jaguars' official ticketing partner.
There were other considerations, such as keeping the game in the same Sunday 3:25 p.m. time slot to accommodate FOX Sports’ broadcast plans, and finding an NFL stadium, which the league now requires for relocated games because instant replay booths have to be wired to NFL headquarters in New York.
Of course, those logistics are secondary to the challenges New Orleans residents are dealing with, which LaFleur was quick to point out.
“Our thoughts are with everybody in New Orleans,” said LaFleur, who endured Hurricane Ike in 2008 in Houston while working as a Houston Texans assistant. “That’s a bad deal that they’re going through. We’ll adjust.”
For the Saints, the scenario is reminiscent of their 2005 season of displacement after Hurricane Katrina struck.
Ida, a Category 4 hurricane, left the entirety of New Orleans in darkness until small pockets of the city began to get power back on Wednesday.
"Knowing what's going on back there (in New Orleans) and us not being able to be there to help, it's kind of unsettling," Saints running back Alvin Kamara said. "But we're doing what we can."
While the Superdome appears to have come through the storm in decent shape, there are logistical challenges with staffing an NFL game there in the near future because of widespread wind damage in the metro area and mass evacuations both before and since the powerful storm struck.
"I am proud of the collective communications that occurred between many entities in a short amount of time that led to us making this decision," said Saints owner Gayle Benson. "It is never easy to make a decision that involves not playing a Saints home game in the Caesars Superdome, but I am confident that this is the right decision for our city at this juncture."
General manager Mickey Loomis said the Saints expect to play a lot of home games at the Superdome this season.
After the opener, the Saints have road games at Carolina and New England before their next scheduled home game Oct. 3 against the New York Giants. Two more road games and their bye week follow before they host defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay on Oct. 31.
"It's sometimes tough to keep the focus on it when there's so much going on and so many people are affected. But at the end of the day, we got a job to do," Kamara said. "We just got to keep moving and find ways to combat it and stay focused."
The Saints evacuated New Orleans before the storm to North Texas, and have practiced this week at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys. They are remaining in Texas for workouts next week, and will travel to Jacksonville the day before the season opener.
"We've got a firm plan for the next week of preparation. ... We've got a place to practice and a place to stay for our team," Loomis said. "I don't think there's anything really too unique about playing on the road if we have to do this Week 1, because we're going to do that Week 2 and Week 3. So it'll be a normal road trip, it's just departing from here."
The arrival of Ida came 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The Saints were forced to move for the entire 2005 season, setting up operations in San Antonio while playing home games there and in Baton Rouge at LSU. After winning their season opener at Carolina that season, New Orleans lost their "home opener" at Giants Stadium and subsequently languished through a 3-13 campaign that led to the firing of then-coach Jim Haslett.
Spurred on by the quick restoration of the Superdome, the Saints went 10-6 and won the NFC South in 2006, Sean Payton's first season at coach and Brees' first of 15 seasons as New Orleans' QB.
In the 2009 season, with swaths of damage from Katrina's widespread flooding still lingering in various pockets of the city, the Saints won their first Super Bowl, with Brees the game's MVP. The city's recovery continued to pick up steam from there, with the ever-popular Brees and the Saints at the center of fundraising and community service projects to push the rebuilding along.
In recent years, any enduring scars from Katrina have been difficult to find, and many parts of the city have looked as polished as ever. That includes the Superdome, where another renovation project was completed this summer, adding end zone suites and viewing platforms that overlook the four corners of the field, and where fans can mix as they search out refreshments.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the city's renowned tourism industry. New Orleans lost a women's Final Four in 2020. It has also seen the past two Jazz and Heritage Festivals canceled. And while the Saints played last season, the 73,000-seat Superdome was largely empty for most of it because of crowd restrictions.
The Saints have planned to play before full crowds this season - albeit with requirements that all fans wear masks and those older than 12 provide proof of vaccination. But now the hospitality industry has lost at least one of those games.
Other than a regularly scheduled game in London as part of the NFL's international series, Brees never had to play a home game that had been moved away from the Superdome. That's something his successor, Jameis Winston, will have to do in his very first start. But Winston should have some fans in Florida, having won the 2013 Heisman Trophy and college football national title with Florida State, and having spent his first five pro seasons as Tampa Bay's starter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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