Calling a T.O. for N.O

New Orleans is 80 percent underwater, which makes the damage to the Superdome roof or the location of home openers seem rather unimportant.

Search and rescue, looting prevention and 3,000-pound sand bag drops - all in an effort to plug busted levees - are now the priority. Eventually entire neighborhoods will have to be reconstructed.

The future of the city is uncertain. Which is why in what will be a year of incredible stress and incredible effort, meaningless concerns such as the future of the NFL in New Orleans should be left on the back burner.

The question of whether Hurricane Katrina has finished the NFL in the Big Easy (or actually cemented its future) can wait.

Because in terms of that question, only one thing really matters:

That the decision be made by the people and politicians of New Orleans - not New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue or any game of political football that pits a currently down-on-its-knees Big Easy against NFL-void Los Angeles.

If New Orleans wants to either make significant renovations to the Superdome or build the Saints a new stadium, it should have the opportunity - and plenty of time after dealing with far more pressing and important needs - to decide.

It is no secret that the NFL wants a team in L.A., the nation's second-largest television market which has been without a franchise since Al Davis took his Raiders back to Oakland in 1995.

And it is no secret that the Saints - with an aging stadium, a small and by NFL standards financially poor market and, due to their own on-field incompetence, a shrinking fan base - are the prime candidates to fill that void.

Benson had publicly insisted that, if he wasn't built a new stadium, relocation would be an option. But cash-strapped local officials balked, although they did provide the franchise $15 million in state subsidy, the only such deal in the NFL. (It wouldn't hurt if Benson and the NFL gave that money back right now, too.)

With Benson having the option to buy out his Superdome lease after the 2005 season, decision day for the franchise was coming. So, the end of the Saints' stay in New Orleans was apparent even before Hurricane Katrina formed.

Now the Saints and the NFL need to do everything they can to try to stay.

Tagliabue has long lamented that the league does not have a franchise in Los Angeles, even if the void there has proven to be a boon for other owners. It didn't take much more than the possibility of a Colts move to L.A., which still has no concrete stadium plan of its own, to get Indianapolis to agree to a $400 million, retractable-roof downtown stadium.

Pre-Katrina New Orleans hadn't shown the financial might or political will to produce a similar offer. Post-hurricane, where football seems so small, the city still may not.

But it is imperative that Benson and the NFL do the right thing and give the city and the state the time to make that decision.

An end run this winter to L.A. (or anywhere else) and out of a city crushed by natural disaster would seem too base to even mention.

But this is the league that gave us Baltimore to Indianapolis and Cleveland to Baltimore and … well, it isn't out of the realm of possibility for the Saints to permanently relocate as well.

The Saints should play all of their home games this season at LSU's Tiger Stadium, if it is structurally fit for play. Then they should commit to stay right there for at least two seasons or until New Orleans has a legitimate chance to make a decision on what it wants to do long-term.

If the city decides that it has more pressing public works projects than a stadium for the Saints and the rotation of NCAA events – the Sugar Bowl, SEC championships and men's basketball Final Fours – then so be it.

Let the Saints go marching to L.A.

But until that decision is made, until the people have a chance to get back on their feet and consider a course of action, Benson and the NFL need to sit tight and help lift the beleaguered region, not pressure it for concessions.

And if that hurts the Saints' profit margin, then the rest of the extremely wealthy league owners should chip in and help. Just like one of those United Way commercials.

After all, considering their sorry teams throughout the years, Saints fans have put more effort and shown more loyalty to the NFL than Saints ownership.

It is destruction in New Orleans right now. A city on the brink.

The last thing the place needs is the NFL playing heartless hardball in the coming months and blowing out of town behind Katrina.