Saints face tough road in recovery

The New Orleans Saints relished the chance to deliver knockout blows to opponents. In response, the NFL has slapped the team with enough suspensions to make them woozy.

The final tally of penalties for the Saints’ play-for-pay bounty scandal includes administrators, coaches and, now, players. In all, New Orleans was dealt suspensions without pay for a total of 50 games (plus 11 games for two players no longer on the team), a pair of second-round picks and a $500,000 fine. The head coach, Sean Payton, is out for the season. So is three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

Such losses would rock a reigning Super Bowl champion. The Saints are a weaker team than last January. How much weaker? That’s still a wait-and-see evaluation.

The rest of the league will watch how New Orleans operates from here. The punishment handed down was severe, and justifiably so. The Saints will be an archenemy at every NFL venue on the schedule. Still, by no means is their season over before Week 1.

“Man… To those who got the hammer today keep your head up… Y’all bound to bounce back!” tweeted former Saints offensive guard Carl Nicks.

For a moment, let’s say any appeal filed by Vilma and defensive end Will Smith (four-game suspension) is denied and any legal action is thwarted. How will this team change? The NFL’s scathing investigation into the Saints’ bounty practices from 2009 to ’11 revealed that 22 to 27 players were involved. Only two currently on the roster will miss playing time.

New Orleans is an offensive team, led by its superstar passer, Drew Brees. The Saints’ passing efficiency will not be affected — those receivers and tight ends are not a poorly conditioned group. So quick scores allowed by the defense won’t hurt them. No, the team’s biggest concern is how to replace Vilma and Payton.

Perhaps it came as a surprise to players around the NFL that Vilma was suspended for an entire season. Unless New Orleans was woefully shortsighted in its offseason preparations, it was not. To wit: The team signed three linebackers, Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain, through free agency.

Lofton, a rangy middle man from the Atlanta Falcons, is the key. The Saints discovered that last season in Week 10 against the Falcons when backup Jo-Lonn Dunbar was an injury fill-in for Vilma. Though Dunbar had the athleticism to man the spot, he admitted afterward it was difficult to be the play-caller and wrangler of that group: “I’m just driving Jonathan’s car,” he said. So Lofton becoming the leader by opening weekend is very important.

The team’s coaching situation will be even tougher to untangle. Interim head coach Joe Vitt will run the organization through training camp, then begin serving his six-game suspension, when offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will take over head coaching duties. New defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, a former head guy with the St. Louis Rams, will provide support, as well.

Simply put, this will be one of the greatest coaching challenges an NFL staff will face. A yearlong head-coaching suspension was unheard of to this point. Still, adversity brings opportunity: Owners and general managers elsewhere would be very impressed if this group can keep the team together and reach the playoffs.

There is also the motivation of the players still standing to consider. The Saints are a close-knit group and will undoubtedly rally around that “us vs. everyone” mind-set. There is some precedent here. After the New England Patriots were hit with penalties and docked a first-round draft pick as punishment for the "Spygate" episode in 2007, the team used the penalties as fuel, finishing the regular season unbeaten and scoring an average of 36.8 points per game.

“Don’t worry they just makin us hungrier and puttin a bigger chip on or shoulder!! #WHODATNATION will rise above it!! #believedat,” Saints running back Mark Ingram tweeted.

Of course, Ingram does not play defense. In order to remain an NFC power, that defensive unit and the coaches must adapt quickly.