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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