NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Finally, the New Orleans Saints can focus on games that count.
The Saints finished off a tumultuous offseason racked by scandal and buffeted by stormy weather with a 10-6 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night.
Interim coach Joe Vitt scratched 26 players, including starting quarterback Drew Brees and their top three running backs and wide receivers, ensuring the Saints (2-3) will be on solid footing as he begins a suspension for New Orleans’ pay-for-injury scheme. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer will lead the team into its Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Washington Redskins.
After checking in on their families and homes when they return to Isaac-ravaged Louisiana on Friday, the Saints will turn their attention to a regular season that was too long in coming following a pay-for-injury scandal that led to several suspensions of coaches and players by the NFL.
“I’m proud of the way they went through OTAs,” an emotional Vitt said. “I’m proud of the way they went through training camp. I’m proud of the way they stuck together. And this week, we got displaced yet again and we had not one man late for a meeting. Everybody came together here and got the work done that we had to get done.”
Vitt coached with intensity until the last moment, sprinting down the field to scream for a timeout as his Saints threatened late in a game. Kromer, meanwhile, took on more responsibilities and will act as coach in place of Vitt and head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entire season along with linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
The starters warmed up before the game and Brees gave Vitt a bear hug as he left the field.
“It’s tough on so many levels,” Brees said. “He’s a football coach. In addition to that he’s a teacher and a mentor and this is what he loves doing. And he has such a strong impact on all of us. So it’s hard on all of us. You try to tell yourself it’s just six weeks, but it’s going to be hard on all of us.”
Vitt said he delivered the team to Kromer in excellent shape with as few health concerns as he can recall. Considered a Super Bowl contender before the suspensions, which also ensnared general manager Mickey Loomis, questions about New Orleans’ viability as a contender following the suspensions have circulated for months.
Rather than rip the team apart, Brees says the situation has only made it stronger.
“I guess in spite of everything that’s going on, it was probably nice to come to camp early and hunker down and just focus on football,” Brees said. “For a lot of us, we just want to get out on the field as quickly as possible. I’ve really watched the team come together over the last six weeks through some pretty interesting circumstances, especially as of late.”
That was apparent Thursday when the Saints backups generally outplayed the Titans’ starters early in the game. It was another up-and-down performance for new Titans starting quarterback Jake Locker, who was largely outplayed by New Orleans third-teamer Sean Canfield in the first half.
Though running back Chris Johnson and guard Steve Hutchinson sat out, Locker got to play with mostly starters in four series that revisited many of the questions that have dogged him since being taken eighth overall in last year’s draft. He completed 9 of 16 passes for 81 yards in four series that yielded a field goal by Rob Bironas, while missing a wide-open receiver for a sure touchdown and fumbling on a scramble inside the Saints 5. Canfield was 14 of 18 for 144 yards in the first half and led the Saints to a 6-3 lead.
Locker finished the preseason 31 of 60 for 215 yards with two touchdown passes and an interception.
Help may be on the way, however. Kenny Britt said Thursday he’s been suspended for just one game following a DUI arrest over the summer — his eighth run-in with police since he was drafted in 2009. That could mean a quicker-than-expected boost for the Titans, who lacked consistent offensive playmakers while just missing the postseason last year.
“He is such a special player, any time you can have him on the field it’s a benefit to our football team, for sure,” Locker said.