Saints stumbling through tough time

BY Alex Marvez • September 27, 2012

A street performer covered from head to toe in sparkling paint sits atop a garbage can on Bourbon Street. Above his battered tip bucket is a cardboard sign that reads, "To NFL Roger Goodell."

The "Gold Man" then sends his message for the cameras with a middle-finger salute — and he says business has never been better.

Not far from New Orleans Saints headquarters in nearby Metairie, a poster hangs on the front door of Mona's Po-Boys restaurant. It features a color photograph and message that reads, "Don't serve this man."

The man: Roger Goodell.

Green Bay fans expressed their anger toward the NFL commissioner after a botched call by replacement referees last Monday night gave Seattle a 14-12 victory. The outrage probably will continue Sunday with mocking signs in the Lambeau Field stands when the Packers host the Saints in FOX America's Game of the Week (4:25 p.m. ET kickoff)

With the regular officials now having struck a labor deal to return, such venom toward Goodell should eventually subside.

There is no sign of that happening in New Orleans.

The Big Easy hasn't taken it easy on Goodell since he announced sanctions against the Saints for alleged involvement in a bounty program. Players such as quarterback Drew Brees and linebacker Jonathan Vilma — who has proclaimed innocence after being fingered and subsequently suspended in the scandal — were particularly outspoken in their criticisms of Goodell, how the matter was handled and the punishments given.

Those verbal salvos, though, are tame compared to how the rest of the city still feels about the NFL's most powerful authority.

"They hate that guy," Saints strong safety Roman Harper told "It's a great city and super-friendly. But when they're mad at you, they're mad at you."

Adding to the fury is New Orleans' 0-3 start. However, that's something for which Saints players are pointing fingers at themselves.

"People outside this locker room are going to be pissed, especially with us being 0-3," Saints wide receiver Lance Moore said. "They're going to want to blame him, but Roger Goodell is not playing out there. We're not playing against Roger. We just have to get the job done."

Moore is right, but doing so will be much harder because of the sanctions that Goodell levied during the spring and the trickle-down effect on the franchise.

First, the Saints are struggling to find closure with suspension appeals ongoing. Asked what was the most frustrating part of the situation at this point, Harper said, "It never dies down."

Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer admitted Wednesday that missteps in how the club handled the bounty scandal fallout may have contributed to the kind of start that harkens back to the franchise's dark days of the 'Aints. Saints management, including now-suspended general manager Mickey Loomis and initial Sean Payton interim replacement Joe Vitt, thought they had a blueprint to guide the club through these tough times.

Instead, Kromer has looked overmatched in an untenable situation while barred by the NFL from seeking the guidance of Payton, Vitt or Loomis.

"It could be that we didn’t practice hard enough in training camp," said Kromer, who didn't assume the interim coaching reigns until Vitt began his six-game suspension at the start of the regular season. "Maybe we had too many distractions at times and we didn’t handle them correctly. We think we are handling them correctly. We say we are. I want to make sure that we are."

This responsibility would have fallen to Payton had Goodell not suspended the Super Bowl-winning head coach for the entire 2012 season for failing to take steps to stop the bounty program despite repeated league warnings. There's no guarantee the 2012 Saints would have avoided three straight losses, but Brees wouldn't be trying to shoulder such a heavy leadership role if Payton were still around.

An offensive guru such as Payton also may have already found answers for the consistency issues that are hindering Brees and his unit. The added responsibility Brees has tried to assume in Payton's absence plays at least a part in his subpar start. The same for a contract holdout that led to Brees missing all of the Saints' offseason program, which can be harmful for a rhythm passer.

Saints right tackle Zach Strief refused to blame Payton's absence for the offensive woes but admitted there could be a subconscious effect on the roster.

"I don't think you sit there and say, 'Man, if only Sean were here, I'd feel better,'" said Strief, who tried to single-handedly take the blame for last Sunday's 27-24 overtime loss to Kansas City because of his blocking woes.

"I know this: There were times I was saying to myself, 'Sean would have gotten in my ear bad.' I don't need that as a player, but I know Sean is a fiery guy on the sideline."

Another major problem besides the offense: A defense that was fiery under ex-coordinator Gregg Williams — the ringleader of the bounty scandal — has shown none of that spunk under replacement Steve Spagnuolo. The Saints are ranked last in the NFL in total yardage allowed and have surrendered at least 27 points in all three contests.

"We have not played well enough to win," Harper said. "We deserve to lose the games we lost."

There are plenty of those outside New Orleans who say the Saints did this to themselves. Although only a minimal amount of supporting proof was made public — and even that has come under attack by the Saints and affected parties — Goodell repeatedly has backed the accuracy and thoroughness of the league's investigation.

"This is all Sean Payton's fault," the bartender at one popular Bourbon Street pub said. "He was told to cut (the bounty program) out and he didn't do it."

The bartender also knows such sentiment is unpopular locally, which is why he would only be quoted anonymously.

"They'd beat me up outside of here if they knew I felt that way," he said.

Goodell will be protected from physical violence by league security when visiting New Orleans in February for Super Bowl XLVII festivities. But even if the Saints manage to salvage their season, Southern hospitality isn't in the offing when he arrives.

"We've still got a chance this year," said Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who lives in New Orleans full time. "Nobody is packing it in. But this city feels like they've been slighted.

"There's a little bit of a vibe that (the NFL) doesn't want the Saints in the Super Bowl this year. It's our job to battle through as a team and city."

Even if New Orleans does that, winning back the respect of Saints fans isn't a battle that Goodell will ever win.