Saints set tone with Hall of Fame game win

CANTON, Ohio — Cue the bounty jokes.

Every stinking one of them, tired and lame as they are.

The New Orleans Saints seem just fine with them.

Because it almost seems as if the Saints want to use the bounty claims and the resulting suspensions of their GM, coach and players as a galvanizing force. They will unite and prove the world wrong, prove that they did not have an illegal program the year they won the Super Bowl, prove they are a true team worthy of respect for the way they play, and win.

Sunday night at Fawcett Stadium was the first step in that process, and though it was brief and took place in a preseason game that means very little, it was emphatic.

Drew Brees was sharp, the offense sharper and the Saints had scored a touchdown before the Arizona Cardinals knew the game had started.

The Cardinals provided the resistance of a flea, but the Saints were near flawless on Brees’ only possession, a 10-play, 77-yard touchdown drive.

He threw to Pierre Thomas for one yard, Darren Sproles for 20, Thomas for eight and to Joseph Morgan, Canton’s own, for 12 to set up a Mark Ingram touchdown run.

It was so efficient it was almost scary. Just more than four minutes into the game, the Saints had a touchdown and Brees gave way as the backups finished in a 17-10 New Orleans win in the Hall of Fame game, the annual exhibition opener.

“We’re on the right track,” Brees said.

Call them almost defiant in the face of a barrage of suspensions that could cripple some teams. In a few plays, he Saints did what they needed to do if they want to carry that tone into the season. That has been their attitude since commissioner Roger Goodell ruled the team ran an illegal pay-to-injure program, a claim the players have vehemently denied.

Now, in addition to denying, the Saints are defying the commissioner, his authority and his decisions.

They will not, as Tom Petty might say, back down.

“One of our goals was to come out and establish the identity that we have,” said cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. “That’s playing a solid defense that will get after the quarterback and is very physical, and an offense that is very explosive but can still run the ball.”

Note that Jenkins did not back down from words like physical and getting after the quarterback.

It could be argued part of the bounty problems was taking that to excess, but he wants his team to maintain that persona.

The Saints didn’t even back down from their suspended coach, with running back Pierre Thomas saying Sean Payton is “still with us no matter what.”

But Payton is suspended the entire season.

GM Mickey Loomis is suspended half the season.

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma is out a season, defensive end Will Smith eight games.

And interim coach Joe Vitt is suspended six games, after which he will return as the interim coach for Payton.

With offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael calling the plays and Vitt practicing for his post-suspension interim coaching debut, Brees went 4 for 5 for 41 yards.

The defense, meanwhile, intercepted Kevin Kolb on his first throw (and Arizona’s second play), then sent Kolb to the sidelines with bruised ribs when he was tackled in the end zone while throwing on the run. All told, Kolb was in for six offensive plays and completed 1 of 4 for four yards as he did his best to prove John Skelton should be Arizona’s starter.

New Orleans shut down the Cardinals’ offense and sent the starting quarterback to the sidelines.

The Saints almost seemed determined to ensure the starters have success, to say we are the team that won 13 games a year ago and came within seconds of playing in the NFC Championship game.

“I think once we got into camp, obviously being one of the first teams in camp, we attracted a lot of attention and media coverage, also because of a lot of circumstances from this offseason,” Brees said. “People wanting to know how things were going and maybe what the mindset was. I think the way we approached it was very much a camp mentality. Hey, we’re hunkering down. We’re thinking about football. We’re thinking about getting better. We’re thinking about coming together as a team.”

Brees toured the Hall of Fame on Friday and seemed touched by a larger Saints presence than he saw in his last visit a few years ago. That presence came from the Super Bowl New Orleans won, and from the records Brees set.

He wants that presence to grow. As does the rest of the team.

“We want to set a tone,” Thomas said. “We want to set a tone for everybody. No matter what’s going on with our situation right now, we’re still focused. We’re focused on one main thing, and that’s to keep winning.

“We’re hungry out here right now, and we’re going to show it to everybody.”