- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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On the surface, Joe Vitt’s tenure as an interim head coach in St. Louis doesn’t look very pretty.
But dig beneath the surface a little bit and you’ll find a different story. I spoke with several people who observed Vitt’s time as the Rams’ head coach in 2005, and they said he did a nice job of weathering the storm.
Vitt will be taking over as the interim head coach of the New Orleans Saints on Monday when Sean Payton begins his season-long suspension. Vitt, who has been Payton’s assistant head coach since 2006, will run the team through the offseason program, training camp and the regular season. But Vitt will have to step away at the start of the regular season and serve a six-game suspension for his role in the Saints’ bounty program. After that, Vitt will return as head coach.
General manager Mickey Loomis will serve an eight-game suspension to start the season. The Saints also could have players suspended.
There are turbulent times ahead for the Saints, but Vitt has experience in handling situations like this.
Back in 2005, he was the assistant head coach and linebackers coach in St. Louis. The Rams already were ending “The Greatest Show on Turf’’ era. With Mike Martz as the head coach, the Rams got off to a 2-3 start and there was a well-publicized feud brewing between Martz and the front office. Martz came down with a bacterial infection in his heart after five games, and Vitt was elevated to interim head coach.
By that point, injuries already were piling up. With quarterback Marc Bulger injured, the Rams had to go through a lot of that season with Jamie Martin and Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Wide receiver Isaac Bruce was dealing with injuries and near the end of his career, and nothing was easy. The Rams went 4-7 under Vitt, but several people that were associated with the team or observed the Rams closely in those days said Vitt made the most out of a difficult situation.
They said Vitt kept his players playing hard. He’s known as a motivator in New Orleans, and it was the same way in St. Louis. Vitt used to show the Rams a movie the night before a game, and it always was tied to a motivational message. One movie was “Gladiator,’’ which emphasized the importance of sticking together. Under Vitt, the Rams started off 3-3, highlighted by Fitzpatrick coming off the bench to rally them to a 33-27 victory against Houston.
After that, the Rams endured a four-game losing streak, but most of those games were close. The last two were a one-point loss to Philadelphia and a four-point loss to San Francisco. Vitt wrapped up his tenure with a season-ending victory against Dallas, a team that included Payton on its staff. After that, Payton got hired by the Saints, and one of the first moves he made was hiring Vitt.
On Monday, Payton will hand over his team to Vitt. It’s not an ideal situation by any means. But Vitt has made the most out of a tough situation before, and the Saints are counting on him to do it again.