NFC South: Joe Vitt

We're taking a league-wide look at the impact new head coaches will have on their teams. The NFC South doesn't technically have a new coach, but a familiar face will be back from a long absence. Let's take a look at how the return of Sean Payton from a season-long suspension will affect the Saints.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsHow much the defense improves may dictate the results in Sean Payton's return as Saints coach.
Biggest change to expect: Interim coaches Joe Vitt and Aaron Kromer did as well as they could under some incredibly difficult circumstances. But Payton has said that watching the Saints last season was like watching children with a babysitter. Things weren’t run exactly the way Payton runs them. He’ll be back in control, and that means he’ll have his eye on everything, so there should be a lot more order.

What success would look like: The whole world knows the offense is going to be good as long as Drew Brees is at quarterback. But the defense needs to be markedly better than it was a year ago when the Saints ranked No. 32 in the league. The organization and its fans have come to expect double-digit wins. That will only happen if new coordinator Rob Ryan can get more out of the defense.

Don’t forget the running game: Payton has said he wants more out of the running game this year. Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas will have roles. But I think this is the year the Saints start to really use Mark Ingram. A first-round pick in 2011, Ingram was underutilized in his first two seasons. He has the ability to run between the tackles, control the clock and take some of the pressure off the defense.

More or fewer wins? The Saints will play enough defense to get to 10-6 and into the playoffs.
METAIRIE, La. -- I’m getting ready to head out and watch the first session of the New Orleans Saints’ minicamp.

I’ll be back with more on the Saints later. But here are five things I’ll be keeping a close eye on.

The defensive vibe: Throughout the OTAs (organized team activities), there has been a lot of positive talk about new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. I want to see him in action. More importantly, I want to see his defense in action. New Orleans had the worst defense in the league last season, and something dramatic had to be done. I remember the stir Gregg Williams caused when he arrived as defensive coordinator in 2009. The defense was jumping after every loose ball in minicamp and training camp, and that created a swagger. I’m curious to see if Ryan is duplicating that.

Payton’s return: Coach Sean Payton has been back from his suspension for several months. But the mandatory minicamp will be his first formal time back with his players. I didn’t realize Payton’s true value to his team until he was out. Things were quieter with assistant head coach Joe Vitt running the team in minicamp and training camp last year. I’m guessing Payton’s presence will make things a bit more spirited.

The backfield rotation: In his third season, running back Mark Ingram is entering a critical time. The former first-round pick has been part of a logjam in the backfield. I think Ingram can be a solid player if he gets on the field more often. He needs to use the offseason to show the coaching staff he deserves to be on the field more than Pierre Thomas.

The third-receiver battle: The Saints used to have one of the league’s deepest receiving corps. But it’s looking a little thin after starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore right now. That said, the Saints have plenty of candidates to emerge as big parts of the offense. I want to see if Nick Toon, Joe Morgan, Preston Parker or rookie Kenny Stills steps up.

The competition at left tackle: Jermon Bushrod's departure as a free agent left a big void. The Saints don’t have a clear answer. They’re letting rookie Terron Armstead compete with Charles Brown and Jason Smith for the starting job. The minicamp should give us an indication of who’s leading the competition.

NFC South links: Freeman feeling pressure?

May, 20, 2013
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Atlanta Falcons

General manager Thomas Dimitroff tells D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the Falcons are not in a rush to get a contract together for quarterback Matt Ryan because, "We all know that Matt is going to be here for a long time."

For those who are interested in the Falcons' new stadium, the Atlanta Business Chronicle presents two slideshows that illustrate the proposed designs, as well as an illustration of how the stadium could spur more development.

Carolina Panthers

Can Panthers quarterback Cam Newton continue to evolve into a marketing star? ESPN.com's Kristi Dosh examines where Newton stands and what it will take to cash in on more endorsements.

"Regardless of what type of season (Jon Beason) has, the Panthers should cut him at the end of the season. He won’t help them, so they shouldn’t help him," writes Brett Jensen of CBS Charlotte.

New Orleans Saints

Defensive tackle Tom Johnson tells the Sun Herald he's primed for a new position in the Saints' new defense, and he's ready for his role to expand.

Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt was one of many current and past Saints coaches and players who took part in the Black & Gold Classic on Friday, the Times-Picayune reports. "I came to support the cause and these great players," Vitt said of the event, which benefits the Green Beret and Navy Seal Foundation.

Cameron Jordan is ready to take on new coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense, a change from last season’s 4-3 alignment under Steve Spagnuolo that led to historically infamous results.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Is Josh Freeman feeling the pressure to win in 2013? If he's not, the Tampa Tribune's Ira Kaufman writes the veteran quarterback should be.

Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon talks about his goals for his first season with the Buccaneers.

Shelton Quarles, Jon Gruden, Josh Freeman and Doug Martin were just a few of the participants in a Celebrity Waiter Night to benefit Quarles' IMPACT Foundation.
Precisely a year ago, one of the most sordid scandals in the history of sports fell upon us out of the blue.

On this afternoon a year ago, the NFL sent out a scathing report that said the New Orleans Saints had run a three-year bounty program with financial incentives for injuring opponents.

It was the story that wouldn’t go away. For months upon months, there were daily twists, turns, audiotapes and blaming of “snitches."

Coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis all drew suspensions. They appealed and lost.

Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith and two other former Saints also drew suspensions by the league. They appealed, continuously, and eventually won.

In the end, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed the appeals process over to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The suspensions of Vilma, Smith and the two others were vacated.

In the minds of many Saints fans, that meant vindication. But that’s nothing more than blind loyalty and Saints fans are missing the point by a mile. Tagliabue found that virtually all of Goodell’s factual findings were correct, but decided the punishment didn’t fit the crime.

Whether it was not having Payton for the full season, not having Vitt for six games or all the distractions, the bounty scandal took a toll on the Saints. They went 7-9.

But, as I wrote on the day this all started, the Saints have no one to blame but themselves. Their arrogance was their downfall. If they had simply stopped the bounty program the minute the NFL told them to, we never would have heard about it. Instead, the Saints denied it and kept right on doing it and it all caught up to them.

It’s over now and it’s time for the Saints to move on. They should benefit from a much quieter offseason because they’ll have their coach and they won’t be surrounded by a daily circus.

Around the NFC South

January, 29, 2013
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NEW ORLEANS -- Before I run off to Super Bowl media day, let’s take a look at the top headlines from around the NFC South:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Although uncertainty remains about the funding, five finalists have been selected as potential designers of a new stadium for the Falcons.

Jay Adams writes that most of the early mock drafts have the Falcons going for a tight end or defensive lineman in the first round of the draft. That makes plenty of sense because tight end Tony Gonzalez has given indications he’s leaning heavily toward retirement and the Falcons need an eventual successor to defensive end John Abraham. But, if the Falcons don’t re-sign Brent Grimes and/or Sam Baker, I could see them turning their attention toward cornerback or left tackle.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Owner Jerry Richardson met with state officials to ask for a reported $62 million in funding for renovations for Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers already have been lobbying Charlotte officials for $125 million in funding. If both the state and city come through with that kind of money, the total will come to $187 million. Presumably, Richardson and the Panthers would come up with the other $63 million. I recognize it’s common for state and city tax money to finance new stadiums or renovations. But it’s still a little weird that Richardson is asking for help because the owner was very proud of the fact he was able to build the stadium without any taxpayer money in the first place.

The Jim Harbaugh vs. John Harbaugh storyline is probably the biggest of this Super Bowl. In the spirit of telling what family rivalries can be like, Joseph Person got Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula to recall what it was like coaching against his father, Don, and brother, David.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

The name of Times-Picayune columnist Jeff Duncan appeared in transcripts of testimony about the bounty scandal in December. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt testified that the team believed former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was texting the names of who the Saints were going to draft to Duncan before the picks were announced publicly. This supposedly happened during the 2011 draft. I wouldn’t put anything past Williams. But Duncan says, if there were such texts being sent, they weren’t coming to him. I’ve known Duncan for more than a decade and if he says he wasn’t getting texts, then I can assure you he wasn’t getting texts.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Baltimore running back Ray Rice had some high praise for Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano. Rice played for Schiano at Rutgers. Although Schiano has drawn some criticism for perhaps being heavy handed, Rice said the Ravens use the same team-first approach that Schiano believes in. The Ravens obviously are in the Super Bowl, so maybe Schiano’s style isn’t a bad thing. We’ll find out for sure in time.
NEW ORLEANS -- The bounty scandal is pretty much over, but details continue to emerge.

The Times-Picayune obtained a copy of New Orleans Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt’s testimony before appeals officer and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in December and it contains some details that haven’t been reported before. Vitt testified that former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams offered rewards for players if they injured assistant coaches from other teams when making plays near the sideline.

But Vitt said players never followed through on that. Much of his testimony indicated Williams acted with a lot of bravado and players didn’t take what he said seriously.

“If our players went out and performed what came out of Gregg Williams' mouth, and it went from his lips to their ears, and then it went to the performance, we would have people in jail right now ma'am," Vitt said to an NFL attorney. "We would have people in jail right now."

Vitt’s testimony also called into question the credibility of former New Orleans assistant Mike Cerullo, who was one of the league’s witnesses. Vitt said coach Sean Payton once asked for police protection for his family while he was out of town because he considered Cerullo a threat.

NFC South afternoon update

January, 22, 2013
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Time for a quick run through the afternoon headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

In this radio interview, cornerback Dunta Robinson said the Falcons had a special chemistry in their locker room. From everything I saw all season, he’s right. The Falcons appeared to be a very close-knit team and that helped them go 13-3 in the regular season. They need to try to keep most of that team together. But they obviously need to add a piece or two, if they’re ever going to win a Super Bowl.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said he pretty much will keep the system run by predecessor Rob Chudzinski. That’s why I keep telling Carolina fans that point to Shula’s past to give him a chance. As the offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay and the head coach at the University of Alabama, Shula never had anything close to what he has now with the likes of Cam Newton and Steve Smith. Shula had to be conservative in his previous stops, but he now has the talent to run a much more wide-open offense.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Now that coach Sean Payton has been reinstated from his suspension, interim coach Joe Vitt said he can forgive, but not forget what the Saints went through during the bounty scandal. It might be a good thing for Vitt and the Saints to not forget. They obviously did some things to prompt the sanctions and they can avoid making the same mistakes. They also can use a 7-9 season to motivate them to getting back to the playoffs.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Former Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said he’s happy to be back in the NFL (with the Dallas Cowboys) after a stint in the college ranks. I can’t help but think back to Kiffin’s departure from Tampa Bay and wonder how things would have worked out differently if he had never left. In the 2008 season, the Bucs were cruising along and ran their record to 9-3. That’s right about the time the news broke that Kiffin was going to leave after the season to be an assistant to his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee. The Bucs promptly lost the final four games of the season and coach Jon Gruden ended up getting fired. If Kiffin had stayed, I think there would have been a very good chance Gruden still would be coaching the Bucs.

Report: No early return for Payton

January, 5, 2013
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All those New Orleans fans hoping suspended coach Sean Payton will be reinstated soon might as well forget about that possibility.

In fact, Payton might not be back on duty quite as soon as originally anticipated. The early word was that he could return to work immediately after the Super Bowl.

But ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell isn’t expected to meet with Payton before the Super Bowl. Schefter’s report also said that Payton won’t be allowed to apply for reinstatement until the day after the Super Bowl.

Even if Goodell moves quickly on the reinstatement process, it’s not likely Payton will be allowed back to work until at least a few days after the Super Bowl.

That could put Payton at a disadvantage if he’s going to make any changes to his coaching staff. Many moves already are taking part around the league, and the final wave usually comes at the Senior Bowl in late January.

But Payton won’t be allowed to attend the Senior Bowl, and that could put him in a difficult spot to make any staff changes. The Saints might be better off to let interim head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis make any changes before Payton’s eligible to return.

Mutiny on the Saints?

January, 2, 2013
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Larry Holder has an explosive story in which an unnamed New Orleans player says Steve Spagnuolo should be fired and proceeds to rip the defensive coordinator in multiple ways.

Although players defended Spagnuolo during the season, the player said the team wasn’t on board with the coordinator.

"Trust me all the guys were being politically correct this season when answering questions," the player said. "It's bad."

The Saints allowed more yards than any defense in NFL history and ranked No. 32 in overall defense.

The player was critical of Spagnuolo for not making in-game adjustments and not letting players have input.

"He does have that good-guy persona, but he is a control freak and treats people like crap," the player said. “[Spagnuolo has] no patience and zero personality.’’

I know some people are going to write this off because the source of the quotes was anonymous. But sometimes you have to use anonymous sources to get the truth.

I thought many of New Orleans’ defensive problems were because the Saints didn’t have the personnel to run Spagnuolo’s defense. But reading these quotes makes me wonder if the problem goes way beyond that.

It makes me wonder if Spagnuolo will be retained. The Saints are in a weird spot because coach Sean Payton remains suspended until after the Super Bowl. But general manager Mickey Loomis and interim head coach Joe Vitt could make a move if they feel Spagnuolo was the real problem with the defense.

NFC South afternoon update

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
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Let’s take a run through some odds and ends from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter isn’t the only Atlanta assistant getting attention as a possible head coach. Special teams coach Keith Armstrong reportedly is a candidate for the jobs in Chicago and Kansas City. Don’t sell Armstrong’s candidacy short just because he’s a special teams coach. He is highly regarded in league circles and could have a decent shot in Chicago, where he worked back in the 1990s.

Coach Mike Smith continues to sound optimistic that defensive end John Abraham (ankle) and cornerback Dunta Robinson (concussion) will be ready for the divisional round of the playoffs.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Coach Ron Rivera is waiting to meet with owner Jerry Richardson to find out if he’s going to be around for another season. The fact Rivera wasn’t fired Monday and the team didn’t make any effort to state that he will be sticking around makes you wonder if Richardson is in the process of hiring a general manager before making a decision on Rivera.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Interim head coach Joe Vitt said he’s been led to expect suspended head coach Sean Payton will return to the team immediately after the Super Bowl. Vitt said he expects Payton will start work at 12:01 a.m. that day and I expect that forecast is pretty accurate.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Coach Greg Schiano steered clear of a question about cornerback Eric Wright’s future with the team. That’s probably because Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik need time to evaluate the season. But I can pretty much tell you right now Wright either will be gone or playing at a much lower salary than the $7.75 million he currently is scheduled to make in 2013.

Defensive end Michael Bennett said he’d like to stay with the Bucs and I’m sure the team would like to keep him. But it probably is going to take some serious money to keep a guy who produced nine sacks. Bennett and defensive tackle Roy Miller probably are the top two names on the list of potential free agents that the Bucs would like to keep.
Sean Payton’s second rebuilding job might be more of a chore than his first.

Friday night’s news that Payton and the New Orleans Saints have agreed to the outline of a new contract extension should bring joy to a fan base that’s been suffering since the bounty scandal broke back in March. Go ahead and celebrate a bit, because this means Payton isn’t jumping over to the Dallas Cowboys.

Payton
But don’t automatically assume that Payton's stepping back in will instantly repair all that’s wrong with the Saints. Assuming the deal gets finalized and is approved by the NFL, which nullified Payton’s previous contract extension, the coach is going to have his work cut out for him when he rejoins the team.

The league previously has said Payton will be eligible to return from his season-long suspension the day after the Super Bowl. It’s a good thing Payton recently competed in a half-marathon, because he is going to have to hit the ground running if the Saints are going to get back to what they once were.

With Aaron Kromer coaching the first six games and Joe Vitt taking over after that, the Saints are 7-8 heading into Sunday’s season finale against Carolina. The Saints are missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

There’s no doubt Payton’s absence played a major role in the Saints’ decline. But does his return mean New Orleans will immediately bounce back?

Payton still will have quarterback Drew Brees and one of the NFL’s most imaginative offensive playbooks, but it’s not going to be easy to fix everything in one offseason.

The Saints are an aging team in some areas, and Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are going to have to make some difficult decisions because New Orleans currently has $135 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be around $120 million.

That means veterans such as linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, safety Roman Harper and others could be salary-cap casualties. The Saints have a defense that’s ranked No. 32 in the league and might end up setting a record for yards allowed in a season. It’s not going to be easy to fix that defense when you don’t have salary-cap room. The offensive line and wide receiver corps also could use some work, but any improvements will have to come at bargain-basement prices.

But there is reason for optimism, too. Back in 2006, Payton took over a franchise and put it in the playoffs in his first season. In his fourth season, Payton won a Super Bowl.

Around the NFC South

December, 28, 2012
12/28/12
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Time for a Friday morning look at the top headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Tight end Tony Gonzalez said his 13thPro Bowl selection is another way of proving people wrong. Gonzalez said people say he’s old and slow and he takes pride in showing them he still can produce. The funny thing is I don’t know that there really are that many people out there that doubt Gonzalez. But, if he thinks there are, let him use that as motivation because it seems to be working.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Quarterback Cam Newton reportedly was fined $21,000 for making contact with an official during Sunday’s victory against Oakland. This one could have been worse. Newton easily could have been ejected because touching an official is supposed to result in automatic ejection.

Running back DeAngelo Williams said he’d like to stay in Carolina, but he knows that decision isn’t up to him. It’s going to be tough to keep Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert next season because the Panthers are facing serious salary-cap challenges.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Quarterback Drew Brees and assistant head coach Joe Vitt said they’re as proud of this year’s team as any team in the past. That’s understandable. Despite a whole bunch of distractions and a very rough start, the Saints have put together a respectable season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Quarterback Josh Freeman, who has thrown eight interceptions in the past two games, says he needs to get back to basics. Freeman looks like a guy who has fallen into the same pattern he was in last season when he was trying to do too much. He has a lot more talent around him now and he shouldn’t be feeling the need to force things.

NFC South wrap: Year of the Falcons

December, 27, 2012
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NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know and my all-division team.

Division MVP: Matt Ryan, Falcons. You can make a case for him as the MVP of the entire league. With one game remaining in his fifth season, Ryan already has career highs in completions (394), passing yards (4,481) and touchdown passes (31). His 69.0 completion percentage also is far above his career average.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireFalcons QB Matt Ryan has made a case to be the league's MVP.
But the most impressive thing about Ryan’s season might be the 13 wins he already has led the Falcons to. It all has come in a season in which the Falcons have overhauled their offense to make the passing game a priority. With the running game posing almost no threat, Ryan has carried this offense.

Biggest disappointment: The Carolina Panthers. Back in the preseason, the Panthers were a trendy pick as a team on the rise. The media, myself included, thought quarterback Cam Newton would only build on a fantastic rookie season and that Carolina had fixed its defense. Fans got giddy, and even center Ryan Kalil joined the fray, taking out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer that promised a Super Bowl victory.

Instead, the Panthers didn’t even come close to making the playoffs. They started so poorly that general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October and coach Ron Rivera clearly is on the hot seat. The current three-game winning streak might get Rivera another year. But you have to wonder why a team with this much talent didn’t open the season playing the way it is now.

The story that never stopped: The New Orleans Saints dominated the offseason headlines for the entire league (maybe the entire sports world) when the NFL exposed their three-year bounty program. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was given a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith was hit with a four-game suspension.

While all that was going on, fans also started sweating as contract negotiations between quarterback Drew Brees and the team dragged on far too long. Brees finally signed, and Vilma and Smith tied things up in the appeals process before eventually having their suspensions vacated. All the drama took a toll as the Saints started 0-4 before getting on a bit of a roll and briefly entering the playoff picture. But the soap opera isn’t over. During the season, it was revealed that the NFL had voided the contract extension Payton signed last year. He could end up being a free agent when he is reinstated.

Has the window closed? Even if Payton does return to the Saints, they might not automatically be the winning team they were the previous three seasons. This team will face major salary-cap issues in the offseason, and veterans such as Vilma, Smith and Roman Harper could be gone.

The defense needs lots of work up front and more help in the secondary. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is eligible to be a free agent, and the wide receivers are getting older. No matter who is coaching the Saints, they’re going to need some major work in the offseason.

The turnaround that wasn’t: Right from the start of the season, it appeared that new Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano was having a huge positive impact. At first, the Bucs were piling up moral victories by playing close against good teams. Then they started winning and got to 6-4; the playoffs looked like a possibility and Josh Freeman was looking like a franchise quarterback.

But things have gone horribly wrong the past five games. Freeman suddenly reverted to his 2011 form, the pass defense has been ridiculously bad, and the Bucs are having a second straight miserable December. That makes you wonder whether the team is buying into Schiano’s hard-line style. It works for guys such as Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin because they win. But when a coach like that is losing, you have to wonder if he’s another Nick Saban or Ray Perkins.

All-Division Team

You will quickly notice that the Falcons dominate the All-NFC South team. That’s largely because they ran away with the division, and winning counts for a lot in my eyes. That’s why I took Julio Jones as the second receiver over Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Marques Colston. Those three had stats as good or better than Jones, but his play has helped the Falcons win 13 games so far. I also used that logic in choosing both of Atlanta’s starting cornerbacks, although it certainly helped that the other three teams had major problems at cornerback.


NFC South afternoon update

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
4:45
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Lots of odds and ends have been popping up around the division this afternoon. Let’s take a quick run through them:

ATLANTA FALCONS

It’s starting to sound as if receiver Roddy White's knee injury might be a little more serious than initially thought. White missed his second straight day of practice Thursday and coach Mike Smith said the receiver’s playing status for Sunday could be a game-time decision. Go grab Harry Douglas for your fantasy team.

On the bright side, cornerback Asante Samuel, who has been bothered by a shoulder injury, said he’s ready to return.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

The Panthers remain pretty banged up. Running back Jonathan Stewart, receiver Brandon LaFell, defensive tackle Dwan Edwards and center/guard Geoff Hangartner each missed their second practice of the week. Defensive end Charles Johnson (back) also was added to the injury report and missed Thursday’s practice.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Reported testimony from the appeals hearings said that former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wanted to stop the bounty program, but assistant head coach Joe Vitt told him not to. On Thursday, Vitt strongly disagreed with that claim. Vitt said when he was questioned about that matter during the hearings, he offered to take a lie-detector test.

The Saints continue to have issues at right tackle as Zach Strief and Charles Brown both missed another day of practice due to injuries. If they can’t play Sunday, William Robinson likely would get the start.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

The Bucs are relatively healthy as they get ready to play the Saints. Cornerback LeQuan Lewis was the only player that didn’t practice fully. But Lewis did participate on a limited basis in Thursday’s practice for the first time since suffering a knee injury.

The Bucs just announced they have signed guard/tackle Derek Hardman and released guard Hayworth Hicks.

Around the NFC South

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
9:38
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Time for a quick tour of the morning headlines from around the division:

ATLANTA FALCONS

Running back Michael Turner admitted he’s surprised that his role has been reduced so much. I don’t know that anyone should be all that shocked about Turner’s declining role. The Falcons came into the season saying they planned to limit Turner’ carries. Turner still was getting a fair amount of carries early in the season, but the results weren’t very impressive, so Jacquizz Rodgers has started to get more carries.

Quarterback Matt Ryan spent the offseason adding bulk and said his plan seems to be working. Ryan said he feels stronger at this point of the season than he has in past years. Of course, the real test will be if Ryan can turn in stronger postseason performances.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Jonathan Jones points out some great numbers on Cam Newton. In the last four games, the quarterback has accounted for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. I think that can only help coach Ron Rivera’s job security, especially if that trend continues in the final three games. Newton is the franchise and owner Jerry Richardson might be wise to maintain continuity. A new coaching staff would mean another learning curve for Newton.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he and suspended coach Sean Payton have had preliminary talks about the reinstatement process and will talk more after the holidays. Payton is supposed to remain suspended until after the Super Bowl. But Goodell didn’t rule out the possibility of the coach being reinstated a bit earlier.

The Associated Press obtained transcripts of the appeals hearings in the bounty scandal and one of the biggest revelations was that former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said he wanted to stop the bounty program, but was overruled by assistant head coach Joe Vitt. I doubt this news is going to change anything now. But, like former commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in his ruling on the appeals, nobody is coming out of this in a favorable light.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Defensive end Michael Bennett broke into a hula dance after recording his second sack of the game Sunday. His message was that he thinks he’s earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. Bennett has nine sacks on the season, which ranks fourth among NFC defensive ends. Bennett wasn’t listed among the top five vote-getters in the latest fan voting results. But Bennett’s candidacy may pick up some steam when players and coaches vote next week. Bennett’s not a household name for fans. But his play this season likely has caught the attention of coaches and players.

Rick Stroud writes that wide receiver Vincent Jackson has been everything the Bucs were hoping for when they signed him to a five-year, $55 million contract in free agency. Jackson’s given the Bucs a true No. 1 wide receiver and that’s helped quarterback Josh Freeman quite a bit. Jackson’s signing has to be considered one of the best moves of this season’s free-agent class.

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