Saints poised following early adversity

There will never be normalcy for the 2012 New Orleans Saints.

Not without an end in sight to the bounty scandal that surfaced in the offseason.

Not with an interim head coach replacing the suspended Sean Payton and the questions that have developed about the latter’s future in New Orleans.

Not following an 0-4 start that has the Saints scrambling to become only the second team in NFL history to dig its way out of such a hole to make the postseason.

But just the fact New Orleans has overcome all this to remain in the playoff hunt entering the FOX America’s Game of the Week against San Francisco (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday) is yet another chapter in the most unusual season in franchise history – and that’s saying something considering everything that has transpired with the Saints over the past 46 seasons.

“We’ve had an interesting 10 months,” Saints right tackle Zach Strief told with a laugh.

That’s one way to put it.

Those who believe the Saints (5-5) deserve every bad thing that has come to them will point to karma. The NFL alleges New Orleans ran an illegal bounty program offering financial awards for injuring players between 2009 and 2011. The purported ringleader was defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose final pre-game speech to his unit stressed targeting specific 49ers players — and body parts — in last January’s second-round playoff matchup.

Regardless of whether Williams was speaking literally or metaphorically, the pep talk didn’t do the trick. The Saints lost, 36-32.

Almost two months following his subsequent Saints dismissal based upon performance, Williams and other key players and members of the Saints organization were charged by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The punishments that followed were severe. Williams received the harshest sentence of an indefinite ban from coaching (he had become defensive coordinator in St. Louis after being replaced in New Orleans by Steve Spagnuolo).

Besides the stripping of two second-round draft choices and a $500,000 fine levied against the Saints, Payton (one year), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six) were suspended to varying degrees. Two defensive starters still with the team — linebacker Jon Vilma (one season) and defensive end Will Smith (four games) — faced the same fate.

Led by Vilma, the four players involved fought the suspensions through both lawsuits and NFL appeals. The matter remains unresolved. Yet another league hearing is scheduled to begin Tuesday headed by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue since Goodell has recused himself from the process.

The bounty fallout stuck with the Saints like a Bourbon Street hangover. All of the controversy, negative attention and media questions that ensued prevented New Orleans from quickly resuming the status quo while preparing for the 2012 campaign.

A 40-32 season-opening loss to Washington at the Superdome — a place where the Saints were unbeaten in 2011 — foreshadowed the problems to come. The offense wasn’t clicking as usual under quarterback Drew Brees, who generated his own headlines during the offseason with a lengthy contract holdout that may have negatively affected his unit’s rhythm. The defense was horrendous under Spagnuolo.

“Everything that could’ve gone wrong went wrong,” Brees said earlier this week following practice.

A winless September followed under temporary head coach Aaron Kromer, who had the unenviable task of being the interim to the interim during Vitt’s suspension. About the only thing missing was a return of the paper bags from the ’Aints days of the early 1980s.

“It would have been very easy in a lot of locker rooms to fold up this season and say, ‘Hey look, they dealt us bad cards. You can only play bad cards so well,’” Strief said.

The Saints, though, finally caught some winning hands. The offense returned to high-powered form. The defense is still bleeding yards at a league-record pace but finally began to make big plays and stiffen in the red-zone. Vitt’s return to the sideline after the Saints had improved to 2-4 provided a further boost.

“The best thing we did was stay together,” Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins told “We can’t complain about it. We’ve just got to play the best we can. I think everybody has embraced that role and realized we’re going to need a little bit more from everybody to make it work.”

Although a 5-1 stretch has put the Saints squarely back in the playoff hunt, staying there won’t be easy. The remaining schedule is among the NFL’s most difficult starting Sunday with the visiting 49ers (7-2-1).

There also are more non-football matters forthcoming that can potentially prove disruptive starting with the pending bounty hearings and rulings. The Saints would be without Vilma and Smith if their suspensions are reinstated.

Payton’s coaching future with New Orleans remains uncertain since news leaked that he isn’t under contract after this season. And based on what else has transpired this year, who knows what other headaches await?

“It’s been a roller-coaster, man,” Jenkins said while shaking his head.

But no matter what happens, Strief believes this time the Saints are ready for any dips that may come.

“We’ve been dealing with outside distractions for nine months now. It’s become the norm,” he said. “We’ve been through difficult times before. We’ve been 0-4 with this group. When you’re in those situations, it gives you confidence that you can deal with them and move on.”

And maybe even up.

“If we were worried about the way that other people perceived us, I think we’d be in trouble as this whole thing has gone on,” Brees said. “We know we’re a great team. We have great character and leadership. We do things the right way. It’s just been a matter of putting that all together and making sure the result reflects the process.

“Now we’re starting to catch some breaks.”