METAIRIE, La. -- I’ve walked out to the practice field twice a day each of the past two days, looking for any signs that suggest the New Orleans Saints are a different team than they’ve been the last few years.
Other than a message for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that can’t be printed here, I saw no signs.
The practices really looked no different than any of the others I’ve seen since starting this job in 2008. As always, the humidity was awful, but nothing else was. This team is talented.
It’s also run in a very organized manner. Yeah, I know coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season, but it’s not as though former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris flew into town and handed the keys to the asylum to the inmates.
The Saints are being led through the offseason by assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who is the closest thing you’ll find to Payton. Vitt has been Payton’s right-hand man since the Saints began their modern era of prosperity in 2006.
“(Vitt is) not trying to fill coach Payton’s shoes,’’ safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "He’s just playing his role, and he’s doing a good job.’’
In other words, Vitt is trying to keep things as normal as possible in what might be the most bizarre offseason an NFL team ever has faced.
Payton’s not on the practice field as he pays the penalty for what the NFL says was a three-year bounty program run by the Saints. General manager Mickey Loomis is scheduled to begin an eight-game suspension at the start of the season. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma is supposed to be suspended for the entire season and defensive end Will Smith for the first four games. Vilma has been around the facility but isn’t taking part in team drills as he recovers from a knee injury. He’s appealing his suspension, as is Smith.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is gone (he left for St. Louis immediately after the season, then drew an indefinite suspension for his role in the bounty program). That might be making things a bit quieter on the practice field, because replacement Steve Spagnuolo isn’t nearly as boisterous as Williams. But you can still see talent and progress on the defensive side of the ball.
Oh, and there’s one other little item -- franchise quarterback Drew Brees hasn’t been around as he and the team try to work out a long-term contract. I’ll acknowledge that I probably saw more incompletions from Chase Daniel, Sean Canfield and Luke McCown than I’ve seen in all the times I’ve seen Brees practice. But there still were moments where you could see Payton’s offense shining through as big-time talents like tight end Jimmy Graham, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston made nice catches and big plays.
Not seeing Brees is a little weird. But does anyone really think the quarterback isn’t going to be with this team by training camp?
Negotiations might go down to the wire, but I’m certain a deal will get worked out. Once Brees is back, the Saints will be just fine.
That’s because, through all the controversy and drama, they’ve kept things the same.
“What’s our other option?’’ Jenkins said. “It’s business as usual. We’ve got to accomplish a lot this time of year, no matter what, so that’s all we can do.’’
Spagnuolo is installing a new defense. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael is fine-tuning that side of the ball, and there’s no doubt Payton left a few notes in his suggestion box before the start of his suspension. Even the special teams look like they’re going about things in the same way.
“They'd better be,’’ wide receiver Lance Moore said. “We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves or anybody else. We’re here and we still feel like we have a very good football team and we definitely can do some damage this year.’’
Jenkins and Moore are precisely right when they say it’s not even an option for the Saints to feel sorry for themselves.
There has been plenty of outside speculation that all the turmoil is going to cause the Saints to collapse completely. There’s no doubt every opponent on the schedule would like to help that process along.
The Saints won a Super Bowl after the 2009 season, and they followed that up with two more winning seasons and two more playoff appearances. Along the way, they haven’t made a lot of friends, but that’s the nature of what is an extremely competitive business.
There are those who want to see the Saints fall and there are others who want to see them standing firmly. Consider Curtis Lofton to be in the latter group. He spent the last four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, probably New Orleans’ biggest rival. But Lofton signed with the Saints as a free agent and is expected to be their starting middle linebacker.
“We look at it now as everybody against us,’’ Lofton said. “Everybody wants to see us do bad. That’s just bringing us together as a unit. The Super Bowl is actually in New Orleans this season, so the goal for everyone is to go and win it for this team and this city. Let’s go get it.’’
The business-as-usual mantra is the best bet for the Saints to get where they want. With Vitt running the show, they’re operating a proven system. Brees will be back, and that means the offense can score enough points for the Saints to beat anyone.
But there’s another challenge on the horizon. Vitt also has to serve a six-game suspension, which kicks in just before the start of the regular season. All indications are that the Saints will then hand the head-coach role to offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, Carmichael or Spagnuolo.
Whichever one of those three takes over, it’s pretty clear how the Saints will proceed. They’ll continue doing things the same way they did with Vitt, which is exactly the same way they did things with Payton.
“I think it says a lot about these guys in the locker room and these coaches,’’ Lofton said. “They’ve been winning a lot of games around here and they have high standards. Everyone’s expectations are to live up to those standards and just keep everything rolling.’’
Just in case there’s any need for clarification, Lofton didn’t mean the Saints will be rolling over. He meant they’ll just keep rolling along.