Fresh off his seven-week bounty-related suspension, New Orleans interim coach Joe Vitt did not wait an extra second to rejoin the team in Florida.
After watching Sunday’s game from an undisclosed location in the Tampa area, he flew back to New Orleans with the Saints after they beat the Buccaneers 35-28 in a game Vitt was barred from attending.
On Monday, he said his suspension was excruciating.
”I agonized,” he said. ”It’s hard to go through that. I’ve been with these guys for seven years. I care very deeply for this team. When you’re not there on game day, win or lose, with guys that you respect and love, it was a challenge.”
The Saints losing their first four games under his interim replacement, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, made it even more agonizing. New Orleans has won two in row but still faces an uphill battle to climb into playoff contention a year after finishing 13-3.
First on Vitt’s agenda is fixing the NFL’s worst defense statistically.
The Saints (2-4) have allowed a league-high 465.5 yards per game under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, including 513 to Tampa Bay, which scored touchdowns on its first three possessions.
Four of the Saints’ six opponents have gained more yards against them than anyone else. A fifth, Washington, score a season-high 40 points.
”I’m certainly not a miracle worker,” Vitt said. ”I’m humble to be back here. I met with (Spagnuolo) this morning, and we know there are things we can do better from a coaching standpoint and from a players’ standpoint and from a schematic standpoint.”
Vitt can help just by coaching the linebackers, his position responsibility. The Saints have been down a defensive staff member since his suspension started at the end of the preseason.
”I know it’s been hard for him as much as he loves the team to see us playing the last six or seven weeks,” linebacker Scott Shanle said. ”Everybody was excited to see him back. He went around on the plane talking to different guys just to catch up.”
The serious work began when Vitt got back to his office around 9 p.m. on Sunday night. Fewer than 12 hours later, he said he already had talked to every assistant coach individually, the team doctors, owner Tom Benson and team president Dennis Lauscha in an attempt to make up for his lost time.
Although Vitt is much more fiery than the reserved Kromer, neither coaches nor players expect any significant changes in tone. From the day training camp started without head coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, the Saints have preached staying the course Payton laid out over six years.
”The foundation has been built,” Shanle said. ”It will be a different person in front of us, maybe saying some different things, but the message will be the same week in and week out.”
The Saints will try to build on their performance against Tampa Bay even though it was uneven. Drew Brees rallied them from deficits of 14-0 and 21-7 by throwing for 313 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone.
The defense was awful at the start and the finish, allowing the Bucs to come within 9 yards of scoring two touchdowns in the final 4:10, but it shut them out for nearly 40 minutes in between.
After safety Malcolm Jenkins ran down wide receiver Vincent Jackson at the end of a 95-yard gain and tackled him just outside the 1 in the third quarter, New Orleans stuffed Tampa Bay on four consecutive plays to take over on downs.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, with his season-long bounty suspension on appeal, returned from rehabbing knee surgery and pressured Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman into a near-interception in the first half.
Vilma can play this Sunday at Denver before his and Saints defensive end Will Smith’s appeals are heard Oct. 30.
”Jonathan Vilma is the epitome of team player and an inspirational guy that I think all the guys kind of feed off,” Spagnuolo said. ”I’m sure glad we got him back.”
For at least one week, the Saints will have every player and coach but Payton back from the bounty suspensions. Their mood is much brighter than it was a few weeks ago, when a 28-27 loss at Green Bay dropped them to 0-4.
”I told somebody yesterday that this is the best 2-4 feeling I’ve ever had,” said wide receiver Lance Moore, who caught nine passes for 121 yards against Tampa Bay. ”We’re not where we want to be, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Vitt is thrilled to be part of it again. Always quick to point out questions he did not like in his preseason stint as interim coach, he drove that enthusiasm home in his opening statement to reporters on Monday.
”I never thought I would say this,” he said. ”But it’s good to see you guys.”
Notes: Vitt said he thought Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham, who missed the Tampa Bay game with a sprained right ankle, had a good chance to be ”full go” on Wednesday when the Saints return to practice. … Kromer said he would have no difficulty going back to being solely the offensive line coach.