Time for a look at the top Sunday morning headlines from around the division:
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Jeff Duncan writes the Saints have no one to blame for the bounty drama but themselves. He’s absolutely right. Although fans like to put the blame on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, alleged “snitches’’ and the media, the Saints could have diminished this situation or totally avoided it. The NFL told them to stop the bounty program back in the 2009 season. That didn’t happen and the league says the bounty system lasted through the 2011 season. The Saints continue to insist there was no bounty program. But they knew they were doing something to at least give the league the impression there was a bounty program. If they had cut out whatever they were doing or at least satisfactorily explained to the league that it wasn’t a bounty program, this whole drama would have gone away a long time ago and there probably wouldn’t have been any suspensions.
Assistant head coach Joe Vitt declined to say how much he’ll play his starters in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame Game. But he did say the team will follow a plan similar to what it used when it played in the game in 2007. In other words, you probably won’t see quarterback Drew Brees and the rest of the starters for more than two series.
Suspended coach Sean Payton paid a brief visit to the Saints on Saturday as he was in Canton, Ohio for the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions. Payton did nothing more than say some brief hellos. For those thinking he violated the NFL’s rule against Payton having contact with anyone employed by the Saints, I don’t think that’s an issue. Payton’s not in a position to test the league and all indications are he checked with the NFL and found out he was allowed to stop by and say a very quick hello to his team.
The boo birds were out in Charlotte at Saturday’s Fan Fest as kicker Olindo Mare missed two of four field-goal attempts and had another one blocked. Mare didn’t have a great season last year and the Panthers brought in Justin Medlock to push him. The Panthers were hoping Mare could just forget about last year and bounce back to the form that previously made him one of the league’s more dependable kickers. But it doesn’t appear that’s happened. Looks like the Panthers have a full-fledged kicking competition on their hands.
Quarterback Cam Newton drew most of the cheers during Fan Fest, but the most encouraging sign of the day might have come when he was intercepted by rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly. Carolina’s defense wasn’t very good last season and Kuechly was drafted to make it better. Looks like he already is having an impact.
Tom Sorensen writes about the competitive spirit of Captain Munnerlyn. Although he’s undersized, that spirit is what has made Munnerlyn successful. The Panthers are hoping to shift Munnerlyn to nickel back this season and start either Brandon Hogan or Josh Morgan. But I think it’s safe to say Munnerlyn is doing everything in his power to try to hold onto the starting job.
The Saints are the only NFC South team playing five preseason games. But the Falcons will get some practice work against another team Monday when they hold a joint workout with the Tennessee Titans. I’m not a big believer in preseason games and I think these joint practices can be at least as beneficial.
One thing you won’t see in the joint workout is tackling. Coach Mike Smith said he and Tennessee coach Mike Munchak want their players to get to work against another team and there will be some hitting. But Smith and Munchak don’t want their players bringing each other to the ground.
The Falcons reached an injury settlement with Robbie Frey and released the running back Saturday. An undrafted free agent, Frey had been sidelined by a foot injury and had almost no chance of making the team.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Bucs say they’ve seen some encouraging signs at the box office and they’re going to take advantage of a new NFL rule that allows them to declare a sellout if they’ve sold 85 percent of their general admission seats. But co-chairman Bryan Glazer said he’s not prepared to predict that every home game will be a sellout. The Bucs have had only two home sellouts the last two seasons. I think the Bucs have taken some steps that could help by lowering some ticket prices, adding some big-name free agents and by utilizing the 85-percent rule. But I think the best way to make sure most of the games aren’t blacked out on local television will come if new coach Greg Schiano and his team get off to a fast start.
Although rookie Doug Martin appears to be the leader for the starting running back job so far, the Bucs won’t make a decision until they see their backs in preseason games. That’s understandable because the backs aren’t really subject to hits in practices. But I think the job is Martin’s to lose. They only way he’s not the starting running back is if he has a disappointing preseason and LeGarrette Blount has a tremendous one.
Receiver Vincent Jackson and quarterback Josh Freeman still are working to develop chemistry. But Jackson has shown an uncommon work ethic on the practice field and in the meeting rooms. He also is the most physically talented receiver in Tampa Bay history. Jackson could be just what Freeman needs to get his career back on track.