Saints confident, despite turbulent offseason
Even with coach Sean Payton banished from the NFL for the season, along with linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the New Orleans Saints expect to make a run at playing in a Super Bowl on their home field next February.
There are two main reasons for their optimism. One is that most key players from a team that went 13-3 in 2011 are back. The other is that when Payton broke his leg in a sideline collision early last season, the club had a chance to see how it would fare with assistants taking on more responsibility.
New Orleans won nine of its last 10 regular-season games.
''Sean would be very, very proud with this coaching staff,'' said assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has taken on most big-picture head coaching duties in Payton's absence because of the Saints bounty scandal. ''When Sean left here there was one mandate: Do your job. And these guys have definitely done their job. We're not only excited about what took place and happened in (offseason practices), we're really, really looking forward to getting to training camp.
''This might be the most talented football team that we have had since we've been here. Now the mandate is going to be to put this thing together and move forward.''
Vitt, a linebackers coach who was part of Payton's first staff in 2006, will be in charge until the regular season opens. Then he'll start his own six-game suspension stemming from the NFL's bounty investigation, which found that Saints players were offered improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents.
General manager Mickey Loomis will serve an eight-game suspension during the regular season. But his most important work will have been done by then.
If nothing else, Loomis has already ensured the unquestioned locker room leader and the quarterback who drives the Saints' record-breaking offense will be at training camp on time. Drew Brees, who received the team's franchise tag during free agency, skipped offseason workouts and minicamp while holding out for a long-term deal. But Brees, who increasingly has taken on both leadership and game-planning roles that for practical purposes make him both a player and coach, remained in almost daily phone contact with Vitt throughout the offseason.
Now Brees, 33, has a five-year, $100 million deal that gives him the highest average annual pay in league history, and Vitt is confident the star quarterback will be prepared to earn it.
''Nobody is going to come in in better shape than Drew,'' Vitt said. ''He's mastered the system.''
In 2011, Brees set NFL single-season records with 468 completions, 5,476 yards passing and a completion percentage of 71.2. His prolific passing numbers helped the Saints set an NFL high for total offensive yards in a season with 7,474. Brees' yards passing record shattered a mark of 5,084 set by Dan Marino back in 1984.
The Saints lost a key part of Brees' protection when All-Pro guard Carl Nicks left for Tampa Bay in free agency. However, they have replaced him with Ben Grubbs, a former Pro Bowl guard with Baltimore.
Brees also has nine of his top 10 targets back, mostly notably Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham and sure-handed mainstay Marques Colston. The biggest loss at receiver was Robert Meachem, who signed a free agent deal in San Diego, but the Saints has several promising young players competing for his spot, including Adrian Arrington, Joseph Morgan and rookie Nick Toon, the son of former Jets All-Pro Al Toon.
On defense, the Saints already jettisoned disgraced former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams before the NFL's revelations in March of Williams' leading role in the bounty program. By then, former St. Louis head coach Steve Spagnuolo, known best for overseeing the dominant defense of the 2007-08 Super Bowl- winning New York Giants, had taken over
Gone is Williams' blitz-happy scheme that often left receivers in single coverage. Spagnuolo is instituting a zone defense that will put more onus on the front four linemen to rush the quarterback and take some pressure off the secondary.
Barring a court ruling overturning NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's rulings on the bounty matter, the Saints will be without starting middle linebacker Vilma all season. New Orleans has acquired Curtis Lofton, who started at the same spot for Atlanta the past four seasons and is entering only his fifth pro season.
Defensive end Will Smith has been suspended four games, meaning the Saints will rely more on Junior Galette and Turk McBride in his spot early in the season. However, the Saints have acquired former Philadelphia and Denver starter Brodrick Bunkley to bolster the interior defensive line and they hope third-round draft pick Akiem Hicks will contribute as well.
A key free-agency loss on defense was cornerback Tracy Porter, known best for his interceptions of Brett Favre in the NFC title game and Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2009 season. Still, the Saints had a replacement in waiting in Patrick Robinson, a first-round draft choice in 2010.
More than anything, Saints players say they just want to move past the club's turbulent offseason and focus on football again. At that point, they believe a roster full of proven veterans will put them in contention for a fourth straight playoff appearance.
''We've had a lot of guys here that have played a lot of ball. For us to be able to get out there and play games and do what we do, I think that will be the best thing for us,'' receiver Lance Moore said. ''Once we start winning games and keep winning games, I think that the focus will transfer from everything else to what we're doing on the field - and that is our goal.''