Saints playing for Payton in 2012

Everyone who matters at Saints headquarters has made one thing

abundantly clear: If the NFL is going to ban Sean Payton, his team

will do everything possible to ensure it continues functioning

precisely as the suspended coach would want.

”Tell me the difference between last year’s training camp and

this year’s training camp,” offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who

will fill in as head coach for the first six regular-season games,

demanded rhetorically.

”Tell me the difference that you see in the way we run things,

the way Drew Brees drops back to pass, the plays that we run, the

hustle, the tempo on the field,” Kromer continued. ”There isn’t a

difference because we’re following what Sean Payton has taught us.

… It is his program. It is the way he has done it. We’ve had a

lot of success doing it his way. We think it is important that we

continue to do that.”

During Payton’s six seasons, the Saints have been to the

playoffs four times, including the last three seasons in a row.

They have won a Super Bowl and have been to the NFC championship

game twice.

The Payton era also has been defined by an elite offense that

has broken numerous club and league records. The NFL records set by

the Saints in 2011 include yards passing by a team (5,505) and a

quarterback (Drew Brees’ 5,476). The Saints also set a record for

total offensive yards with 7,474. Saints players and coaches won’t

go so far as to predict the fall of more records, but they do talk

as though Payton has already laid out the road map to the Super

Bowl, and all they have to do is follow it.

”We are ready to have success,” Kromer said. ”We have a lot

of talent. We have a lot of good character in the locker room. We

have it in our coaching staff. (We have) smart coaches, smart

players, tough players. We are going to be able to win because of

what we have been training to do and what we have learned to do

from Sean Payton.”

If they succeed, the Saints will end up right back in their home

stadium, the Superdome, in February. So if the suspension of their

coach wasn’t already enough of a rallying point, the opportunity to

become the first NFL team to play a Super Bowl on its home field

provides another.

”That’s our goal,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. ”The pressure

is on us, at least internally, to have this be a huge year. I think

everyone knows the importance of it and how huge of a deal that

would be for us to get that Super Bowl.”

Payton was suspended the entire season after an NFL

investigation concluded he did nothing to stop a bounty program,

run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, which paid cash

bonuses to defenders for injuring opponents. The Saints have

admitted to having a pool that paid for big, clean plays and fined

players for mistakes – common across the league – but not to

intentionally trying to hurt anyone.

Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who was part of Payton’s first

staff in 2006, has been the figurehead of the coaching staff since

Payton’s suspension began in mid-April. However, Vitt, who is also

the linebackers coach, will have to serve a bounty suspension of

his own for the first six games of the regular season before

resuming his oversight role for the rest of the regular season and

whatever playoff opportunities await. Vitt’s official title has

never changed, which is the organization’s way of saying: ”This is

still Payton’s team.”

So the story line for the 2012 Saints is ready made: If they can

win, it’ll be their way of upholding Payton’s honor while sticking

it right back in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s face. Certainly,

many of the players most responsible for the Saints’ recent success

will be back, starting with Brees, who still has top targets such

as Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston.

Big-play threat Darren Sproles is back to help the offense and

return game, as is reliable running back Pierre Thomas. The Saints

lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks in free agency, but have replaced him

with former Baltimore Pro Bowl lineman Ben Grubbs. On defense,

middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma will miss the entire season due to

a suspension unless a federal judge decides otherwise or the league

settles his lawsuit seeking to overturn his bounty sanctions.

However, the Saints have brought in a younger, bigger and

healthier replacement in Curtis Lofton, a former starter for rival

Atlanta. Lofton has quickly emerged as a leader of a unit now

overseen by new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, whose 2007

New York Giants defense helped thwart the New England Patriots’ bid

for a perfect season with a Super Bowl upset.

Defensive end Will Smith is suspended for the first four games,

but the Saints are expecting second-year end Cameron Jordan to make

major strides and are hoping fellow ends Turk McBride, Junior

Galette and converted linebacker Martez Wilson can help anchor the

line until Smith returns.

All in all, the Saints are emerging from the preseason as a

confident, if not defiant bunch.

”We are poised. We are ready,” Brees said. ”This is what you

play for, this opportunity.”

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