NFL Nation: 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.
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.

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.
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 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 that 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 may 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.

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 could 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 way over 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 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 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 like Vilma, Smith and Roman Harper could be gone.

The defense needs lots of work up front and some 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 new coach Greg Schiano was having a huge positive impact on the Buccaneers. 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 something has 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 if the team is buying into Schiano’s hardline style. It works for guys like 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.

Only fans innocent in Saints' scandal

December, 11, 2012
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I know there are a lot of New Orleans Saints fans out there celebrating the fact that the player suspensions in the bounty saga have been vacated.

That’s good for the fans because they’re the innocent ones in all this. And innocence is an important item to keep in mind in all of this.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, acting as an appeals officer, set the suspensions aside. But he most certainly did not say the players were innocent.

In fact, Tagliabue firmly said that he agreed with current commissioner Roger Goodell’s finding that the Saints ran a three-year bounty program and that linebacker Jonathan Vilma placed a bounty was placed on former Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre.

By dropping the suspensions, Tagliabue might have been doing Goodell a favor. Who would have thought months ago that a defamation suit by Vilma against Goodell still would be lingering? Defamation suits by public figures usually get tossed out of court pretty quickly.

But this one was hanging out there and, with it, so was the possibility of Goodell being brought into a deposition. The rules are broad in scope and Vilma’s attorneys could have asked Goodell about almost anything (concussions, how much money owners make, etc.).

Vilma’s attorney said the suit will continue, but I think the chances of it getting tossed out or dropped went up greatly when Tagliabue made his ruling.

But Tagliabue’s ruling in no way says the Saints were doing the right thing. It just shifted the blame even more toward coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, general manager Mickey Loomis and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Someone has to take the blame here and maybe Payton, Vitt, Loomis and Williams deserve it more than the players.

As I wrote back in March, the Saints are viewed by a lot of people around the league as being arrogant. A lot of people think the Saints make their own rules. I think Tagliabue's ruling only enhances the idea of a culture of arrogance within the Saints, especially the people inn the highest positions.

They broke rules repeatedly. When the league first started asking about a bounty program three years ago, the Saints denied that was happening. They kept denying it and that’s why no one has been exonerated.

The players won’t face suspensions. But Vitt already served a six-game suspension and Loomis served an eight-game suspension. Payton is suspended for the entire season and Williams is banned indefinitely.

There was wrong doing in New Orleans. The league just shifted the blame for that away from the players and toward the people at the top of the organizational flow chart.
I just finished reading the entire order by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that vacated player suspensions in the New Orleans Saints bounty matter.

Tagliabue’s ruling is very lengthy (22 pages), so if you don’t have time to read it all, let me summarize it and provide some highlights.

First off, Tagliabue makes it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he found current commissioner Roger Goodell’s findings that the Saints ran a three-year bounty program to be accurate. Tagliabue said linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith and former New Orleans defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove engaged in conduct detrimental to the game, although he ruled that former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita did not take part in detrimental conduct.

Tagliabue criticized the behavior of New Orleans players that took part in the bounty program, but, as I read the ruling, it became very clear that he’s shifting most of the blame to coaches and the front office.

The biggest theme I saw as I went through the document was Tagliabue pointing to the behavior of coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and general manager Mickey Loomis as being way out of bounds.

Below are some excerpts where Tagliabue addresses that theme:
  • “The Program eventually led to allegations of a bounty being placed on (former Minnesota quarterback Brett) Favre. Making matters far more serious -- as well as challenging for Commissioner Goodell and League investigators -- Saints’ coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL’s investigation into the Program and the alleged bounty.’’
  • “These suspensions thus deprived the Saints of vitally important coaching and leadership talent, and they represented a severe competitive penalty for the Saints’ team, its fans and indirectly for the New Orleans / Gulf Coast region. Commissioner Goodell’s findings and the resulting suspensions of these Saints’ personnel are final and no longer subject to appeal.’’
  • “There is evidence in the record that suggests that Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints’ players for the events that occurred here. This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light.
  • “It is important to note that Commissioner Goodell has been forced to address the issues of misconduct by some individuals in the Saints’ organization since early 2010 to the present. Due to the indefensible obstruction of justice by Saints’ personnel, which included admitted efforts of coaches to mislead or otherwise deny the existence of a bounty or the Program, a disciplinary process that should have taken weeks is verging on three years."
  • “Vitt admitted to NFL investigators in 2012 that he “fabricated the truth” when he spoke to an NFL investigator in March 2010 about whether there had been a bounty on Favre. He later claimed that his admitted fabrication was just “stretching the truth” because he failed to describe for investigators the emotionalism of the defensive team meeting the night before the NFC Championship Game."
  • “There is no question that Coach Williams and other coaches orchestrated the Program to incentivize cart-offs and knockouts; carefully choreographed defensive team meetings, including presenting graphic slide presentations showing injuries to opposing players; ensured that any player who would speak at team meetings was adequately prepared or supported; and generally created an atmosphere in the 2009 season and playoffs that suggested to Saints’ players that offering a $10,000 bounty to injure an opposing player was permissible behavior."

NFL walks away from Saints fight

December, 11, 2012
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Jonathan VilmaDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma and other players implicated in the Saints bounty scandal have had their penalties overturned by Paul Tagliabue.
Let me get this straight.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has found that current commissioner Roger Goodell was spot on in his finding of facts in the New Orleans Saints bounty saga? But Tagliabue has vacated all player discipline?

That’s more than a little contradictory. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

Tagliabue is agreeing with Goodell that the Saints ran a bounty program for three years, but Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita no longer are facing suspensions.

Heck, they probably won't even face fines, unless Goodell oversteps Tagliabue -- but I think Goodell is planning on staying in his own lane now.

“My affirmation of commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines,’’ Tagliabue said in part of his statement. “However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization.’’

Sounds to me like Tagliabue and the NFL are taking the easy way out of this one. They’re pointing their fingers squarely at coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt.

There’s one huge difference between the coaches and general manager and the four players: The players are represented by the NFL Players Association, which challenged every step of the process, even though you could make a case that the union was siding with the best interest of four players over the safety of hundreds of others.

The NFLPA appealed every decision, and it ultimately won. Vilma doesn’t have to face a season-long suspension. Smith doesn’t have to miss eight games. Hargrove, who is currently out of the league, doesn’t face a seven-game suspension. Fujita, who might have suffered a career-ending injury this season, doesn’t face a one-game suspension.

The league still is saying the players did what the league alleged from the start, and Tagliabue’s statement reiterates that he found convincing evidence that there was a bounty on Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC Championship Game of the 2009 season.

But the players aren’t getting suspended, they’re not losing paychecks and they’re not getting fined. They’re getting off pretty much free, except for whatever damage was done to their reputations by this whole sordid saga.

That damage was significant, and we might not have heard the last of it on that front. Vilma still has a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. If I’m Vilma, I’m not dropping that lawsuit.

Vilma has shown that you can take on what was supposed to be an almighty commissioner and win. It’s hard to win a defamation lawsuit because you have to prove intent to put out statements you knew were untrue, but Vilma is on a roll, so why not continue pursuing it?

Vilma’s attorney, Peter R. Ginsberg, already has said the defamation suit isn’t going away.

“We are obviously relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension,’’ Ginsberg said in a statement. “On the other hand, commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan. Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day.’’

Maybe Vilma can get the NFL to keep backtracking and say there was no bounty on Favre, because it sure looks like the league doesn’t want to fight anymore.

Apparently, the league’s approach now is to just blame it all on Loomis, who already has served an eight-game suspension, and Vitt, who already has served a six-game suspension. And put even more blame on Payton, who is serving a season-long suspension, and Williams, who is banned indefinitely.

Those four are the easy targets because they exhausted their appeals long ago. The only option they had was to appeal their decision to one judge. That was Goodell, back in the spring, and he upheld his own punishments and the clock on those suspensions started ticking.

But the hands of the clock on player punishments were tied up by constant appeals and Vilma’s lawsuit.

Makes you wonder whether Payton, Loomis, Vitt and Williams might have taken a different tack if they knew in the spring what they know now.

There’s no absolute vindication for anyone because Tagliabue and the league still are saying the Saints ran a bounty program.

But one group of the alleged culprits is walking away without any punishment, and the other already has served or is serving its punishment.

That’s because the players fought it and, in the end, Tagliabue grabbed the NFL by its shoulders and pulled the league out of the fight.

There are a lot of injury issues in the NFC South this week. Let's take a look at the latest on the most significant injuries:

ATLANTA FALCONS

The Falcons have a star-studded cast of players listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with Arizona. Receiver Julio Jones, who has not practiced all week due to an ankle injury, highlights the list. If Jones can’t play Sunday, the Falcons likely would start Harry Douglas and use Drew Davis or recently signed Tim Toone as their third receiver. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (ankle) did not practice all week, has missed two straight games and is listed as questionable. In the cases of both Jones and Weatherspoon, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Falcons take a cautious approach and sit them, especially since the game is on turf and against a struggling opponent. The Falcons also are listing defensive end John Abraham (back) and running back Michael Turner (groin) as questionable. But both participated in Friday’s practice on a limited basis.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Although he practiced this week, there still is uncertainty if running back Darren Sproles will be able to play Sunday. Interim coach Joe Vitt said Sproles experienced some swelling in his hand and is listed as questionable. Running back is one position where the Saints have plenty of depth and they can continue to use a rotation of Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory if Sproles isn’t ready to go. Right tackle Zach Strief (groin) has been ruled out for Sunday. That means it’s likely Charles Brown will start in his place.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Despite missing Thursday’s practice receiver/return man Armanti Edwards (groin) is probable for Sunday. Coach Ron Rivera also said Jeff Byers will start at right guard Sunday. There had been speculation that Jeremy Bridges, who was signed earlier this week, might move immediately into the starting lineup. But Rivera said Bridges still needs to work on conditioning.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Guard Jamon Meredith (ankle) participated in Friday’s walk-through, giving the Bucs some hope he might be ready to go. Cornerback Eric Wright also practiced after missing Thursday’s session due to what coach Greg Schiano said was a personal reason.
Drew Brees, Matt RyanUS PresswireRecent history has raised the intensity between Drew Brees' Saints and Matt Ryan's Falcons.
For at least one week, it really doesn’t matter that the New Orleans Saints got off to an 0-4 start or that Bounty Gate seems to have been airing as long as “As The World Turns."

The Saints host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and that means only one thing. The NFC South’s best rivalry -- and one of the NFL’s best rivalries in recent seasons -- will take center stage, and everything else will be forgotten.

Yeah, the Saints are 3-5 and have had more turmoil than perhaps any team in NFL history. Yeah, the Falcons are 8-0 and cruising through a sea of tranquility.

But none of that matters. If the Saints are going to step up and be the Saints of old in just one game this season, it will be this one. If the Falcons are going to slide back in just one game this season (and we’ll discuss their past playoff issues when the time comes), it will be this one.

These teams simply don’t like each other. Although they came into the NFL at roughly the same time (in the mid-1960s) and always had a bit of a geographic rivalry, this only turned into a full-fledged feud in recent years. That’s largely because the teams have been good at the same time, egos have gotten out of control, egos have been bruised, and it’s all made for some great entertainment.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and look at some incidents that have come to define this rivalry.

Photo flap: I’ll start with a game in the Georgia Dome late in the 2010 season. In a classic battle, the Saints edged the Falcons, 17-14, to clinch a playoff spot. But it wasn’t so much what happened in this game that made it memorable. It was what happened after the game.

A group of New Orleans defensive players went to the locker room and then came back out onto the field to have their pictures taken on the Falcons’ logo. The Falcons, a team that tries very hard to keep a low profile and stay out of public controversies, were privately offended and irate.

The Saints, a team that’s not shy about anything, displayed the photos like trophies. Defensive tackle Remi Ayodele used some graphic terms to describe what the Saints were doing, even though I’m certain he was speaking only in the figurative sense.

After Ayodele’s comments went viral, New Orleans assistant head coach Joe Vitt tried to douse the flames by saying how much the Saints respected the Falcons. But, in perhaps breaking an unwritten rule (don’t celebrate on another team’s logo), the damage already was done.

Pouring it on? Then, almost exactly a year removed from the logo fiasco, there was the night in New Orleans when a lot of people (including some in the Falcons’ organization) thought coach Sean Payton was running up the score as he let Drew Brees continue throwing as he set an NFL record for passing yards in a season and the Saints defeated the Falcons, 45-16. In the Atlanta locker room that night, there were more than a few players that felt disrespected, although they could have prevented it by slowing Brees.

Statue war: Respect -– or a lack of it -– can flow both ways. That became obvious this summer when the Saints unveiled a statue of one of the most popular players in franchise history (Steve Gleason) making perhaps the biggest play in franchise history.

The statue replicates Gleason’s punt block in the first game back in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But the other figure in the moment, former Atlanta punter Michael Koenen, has no Falcons’ logos and his name doesn’t appear on the back of his figure.

The Falcons said they realize the significance of Gleason’s play in the history of the Saints and the city of New Orleans, but said they were advised by the NFL not to allow their trademark to be used in connection with things out of their market. The Falcons could have made an exception to the NFL’s guidelines, but elected not to.

That angered a lot of New Orleans fans. Anger is a big part of any rivalry and doesn’t have to be limited just to fans.

Burning bridges: We were reminded of that in the offseason when Atlanta linebacker Curtis Lofton was a free agent. Lofton eventually signed with the Saints and, throughout the offseason, used every opportunity to take subtle -- sometimes not even subtle -- shots at his former team.

Lofton really drew the line in the sand when he said one of the reasons he signed with the Saints was because he wanted to be with a team that had a chance to go to the Super Bowl. That one didn’t go unnoticed in the Falcons’ offices or locker room in Flowery Branch, Ga. But, long before that, lots of lines were crossed both ways in this rivalry.

With the Saints off to a bad start, this game probably has no playoff implications for them, and the Falcons could pretty much put an end to New Orleans' playoff hopes with a victory. But the Saints would love nothing better than to knock the Falcons from the ranks of the unbeaten.

Heck, if the Saints could win and send the Falcons into a tailspin, it might make their crazy season worthwhile.

If the Falcons win, it keeps them marching toward their ultimate goal -- the Super Bowl -- and that could provide further motivation for them on Sunday. For those that haven’t thought that far ahead, the Super Bowl is in New Orleans this season.

Sunday might as well be the Super Bowl for the Saints. They want to derail the Falcons somehow, because the last thing anyone in New Orleans wants to see is Atlanta players celebrating in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in February.

Saints don't need to blow up defense

November, 3, 2012
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Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Steve SpagnuoloStacy Revere/Getty ImagesIt is not time for the Saints to give up on Steve Spagnuolo's defense in New Orleans.
It’s so easy to sit back, look at the numbers and say the New Orleans Saints simply need to blow up their defense.

They are the first team in NFL history to allow 400 or more yards in each of its first seven games. The 3,323 yards the Saints have allowed are the most through seven games since the NFL first started tracking total yards in 1933. The Saints also are the only team to allow 24 points in each game this season.

It’s clear Steve Spagnuolo’s defense isn’t working. The Saints should just scrap it and go back to what (dare we say it?) Gregg Williams ran, right?

Wrong. That’s the worst thing the Saints, who host the Philadelphia Eagles on "Monday Night Football," could do for their future. Long before the bounty scandal broke, it became obvious that Williams had to go, and he did, leaving immediately after last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco.

When Sean Payton was making the switch, he realized the Saints needed something they’d never had in his tenure. They needed a consistently good defense.

“Listen, what we always win with around here is complementary offense and complementary defense,’’ said Joe Vitt, who is the interim head coach as Payton serves a season-long suspension. “There have been, quite frankly, a lot of times around here since ’06 that we have struggled some defensively.’’

Yep, the Saints struggled so badly on defense in 2008 that Payton fired close friend Gary Gibbs and replaced him with Williams, even though the two men knew going in that their personalities and egos probably would clash.

For one beautiful season, things clicked. Williams’ defense, while not shutting everyone down, produced a bunch of turnovers and big plays and the Saints won a Super Bowl. The next two seasons, the Saints got bounced in the playoffs because their defense wasn’t producing much.

Payton decided to, once and for all, fix his defense permanently. Hehired Spagnuolo, who came with a proven system.

It’s not working as it should yet, but this is about the long term now, because the Saints aren’t going to the playoffs this season.

“I think with the veteran coaches [like] Chuck Knox, Dick Vermeil, Ted Marchibroda, if you have dramatic changes and you have [radical] changes, that’s when panic sets in,’’ Vitt said. “All of a sudden you’re going to create a scheme that you have not worked on in OTAs, that you have not worked on in training camp, and all of a sudden all of the things that looked good in OTAs and looked good in training camp all of a sudden start to look bad right now. If you put that panic in, the players can smell the house burning before the match is ever lit.’’

Leave the panic up to the fans. The Saints have to keep their eye on the ball and work through this or else they'll never get back to being the powerhouse they've been in recent years.

Sure, Spagnuolo can make a few minor tweaks. But the best thing he can do right now is to implement his system fully. The Saints already have decided rookie DT Akiem Hicks is a better fit than veteran Brodrick Bunkley

If safety Roman Harper can’t handle the coverage duties of Spagnuolo’s scheme, maybe it’s time to find out whether Isa Abdul-Quddus can. If Will Smith and Cameron Jordan can’t generate a consistent pass rush up front, maybe it’s time to figure out whether Junior Galette and Martez Wilson can.

Even if the younger guys do show they fit in Spagnuolo’s system, that’s not going to change everything overnight. The Saints faced salary-cap issues and a lack of draft picks in the offseason, and that’s why they weren’t able to stock Spagnuolo’s cupboard with the players he needed.

They’re going to face similar restrictions in the next offseason, but general manager Mickey Loomis is smart enough to work around that. It’s best to use the rest of this season to find out which guys do fit Spagnuolo’s system.

Then, fill the remaining holes in the offseason.

This may seem like a lost season for the Saints. But Payton’s coming back next season and, if he has the kind of defense he’s always dreamed of, the Saints could be better than ever.

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
1:00
PM ET
Cam NewtonAnthony J. Causi/Icon SMIAt 1-6 Cam Newton and the Panthers have had a disastrous start to the season.
Back in the good old days, namely 2008 through 2011, the NFC South was the NFL’s most stable division.

At times, it even bordered on boring and predictable. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons would go out and win a bunch of games. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some ups and downs, but at least the Panthers won 12 games in 2008 and the Bucs were a pleasant surprise when they went 10-6 in 2010.

Even when the Panthers collapsed in 2010, you knew it was because owner Jerry Richardson was preparing his franchise for the labor lockout and, all the while, the Panthers had veteran general manager Marty Hurney around to keep sanity and be the voice of reason. In a somewhat similar way, the Bucs leaned on general manager Mark Dominik as they went through major changes after last season.

But it’s looking like 2012 will be remembered as the season of chaos in the NFC South. It’s like someone sent a memo saying, “Hey, let’s see who can generate the most turmoil." The memo somehow didn’t get to Falcons’ headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga. (a town as quaint and peaceful as its name suggests), but the other three NFC South teams have taken it to heart.

The Falcons are going to win the division, but it looks like the real battle is for the title of “most dysfunctional team."

Let’s take a closer look at that race:

New Orleans Saints: This team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history since March 2. That’s the day the NFL announced its investigation of the alleged bounty program.

You know the story from there. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt got six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma got a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith got four games, but those suspensions are tied up in the appeals process and the legal system and I’m starting to think we might not see a final resolution this season.

Oh, and let’s not forget quarterback Drew Brees’ tumultuous negotiations before finally getting a new contract in July.

But the true gauge on this drama has been the first seven games. The Saints, a team with plenty of talent and veteran leadership, have fallen apart. They are 2-5 and their defense is on pace to shatter all sorts of records for futility.

For the longest time, it was hard to question any personnel move Loomis and Payton made. Now, it’s easy. Was signing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to a five-year deal that averages $4.5 million a season really a good idea? Shouldn’t the Saints have acquired some pass-rushers for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, since that’s what his system is based on? Why did the Saints keep running backs Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet on the roster when they’re barely using them?

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent. Maybe things will turn around when Payton returns and after Loomis has had a full offseason to massage the salary cap and tweak the roster. But, with a defense that can’t stop anyone and an offense that’s not the machine it once was, I see only more trouble for the Saints this season.

Carolina Panthers: Hurney got fired after a 1-5 start and the Panthers now have extended their record to 1-6. Coach Ron Rivera probably has about as much chance of keeping his job as John Fox did in 2010.

Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t doing well on the field, and the results of his postgame news conferences have been even more disastrous.

What’s most stunning about this is that the whole world thought the Panthers were a team on the rise after going 6-10 in the first season for Newton and Rivera. I’m still trying to figure out how the Panthers have spun into chaos so quickly and in such spectacular fashion.

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent: With Hurney gone, different people who work in Bank of America Stadium give you different answers about who’s in charge. At the moment, this team is a rudderless ship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re 3-4 and there have been some signs coach Greg Schiano has this team headed in the right direction. But there still is a lot of work to be done.

That’s because predecessor Raheem Morris let things get so out of control last year that the Bucs were every bit as dysfunctional (or maybe even more so) as the Saints and Panthers are now. Schiano has cleaned out some of the problems (Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow), and he seems to be reconstructing quarterback Josh Freeman’s confidence.

But the Bucs haven’t completely turned the corner into a sea of tranquility. Schiano has a hardline, old-school, or whatever you want to call it, approach. Players seem to be tolerating it, and that’s easy to do when there are positive signs. But, if the Bucs regress at all, players could turn on Schiano the way Tom Coughlin did.

The Bucs are coming off a huge win at Minnesota, but they lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending injury earlier this week. It seems every time the Bucs start to take a step forward, something pulls them back.

Dysfunction rating: 35 percent. There’s been a lot of change here and most of it seems to be for the better, but at least a couple of players seem to need attention deficit disorder medication to focus in on what’s happening in Tampa Bay.

Atlanta Falcons: They’re the only undefeated team in the league, and it’s largely because of the tone of stability set by coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When fans called for major moves in free agency, Smith and Dimitroff simply re-signed their own guys.

Running back Michael Turner and defensive end John Abraham each have had an off-field legal issue this season. That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in the NFL.

Those events caused only minor distractions, and that’s because the Falcons have such strong leadership from the very top and because winning can take attention off everything else.

Dysfunction rating: 5 percent. That number can be knocked down to zero if the Falcons receive the memo, coming soon to Flowery Branch, that says, “Win a playoff game," and then they go out and make it happen.

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
12:20
PM ET
RyanDrew Hallowell/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan and the Falcons are the only undefeated team left in the NFL.
Back in the good old days, namely 2008 through 2011, the NFC South was the NFL’s most stable division.

At times, it even bordered on boring and predictable. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons would go out and win a bunch of games. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some ups and downs, but at least the Panthers won 12 games in 2008 and the Bucs were a pleasant surprise went they went 10-6 in 2010.

Even when the Panthers collapsed in 2010, you knew it was because owner Jerry Richardson was preparing his franchise for the labor lockout and, all the while, the Panthers had veteran general manager Marty Hurney around to keep sanity and be the voice of reason. In a somewhat similar way, the Bucs leaned on general manager Mark Dominik as they went through major changes after last season.

But it’s looking like 2012 will be remembered as the season of chaos in the NFC South. It’s like someone sent a memo saying, “Hey, let’s see who can generate the most turmoil." The memo somehow didn’t get to Falcons’ headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga. (a town as quaint and peaceful as its name suggests), but the other three NFC South teams have taken it to heart.

The Falcons are going to win the division, but it looks like the real battle is for the title of “most dysfunctional team."

Let’s take a closer look at that race:

New Orleans Saints: Since March 2, this team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history. That’s the day the NFL announced its investigation of the alleged bounty program.

You know the story from there. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt got six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma got a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith got four games, but those suspensions are tied up in the appeals process and the legal system and I’m starting to think we might not see a final resolution this season.

Oh, and let’s not forget quarterback Drew Brees’ tumultuous negotiations before finally getting a new contract in July.

But the true gauge on this drama has been the first seven games. The Saints, a team with plenty of talent and veteran leadership, have fallen apart. They are 2-5 and their defense is on pace to shatter all sorts of records for futility.

For the longest time, it was hard to question any personnel move Loomis and Payton made. Now, it’s easy. Was signing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to a five-year deal that averages $4.5 million a season really a good idea? Shouldn’t the Saints have acquired some pass-rushers for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, since that’s what his system is based on? Why did the Saints keep running backs Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet on the roster when they’re barely using them?

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent. Maybe things will turn around when Payton returns and after Loomis has had a full offseason to massage the salary cap and tweak the roster. But, with a defense that can’t stop anyone and an offense that’s not the machine it once was, I see only more trouble for the Saints this season.

Carolina Panthers: Hurney got fired after a 1-5 start and the Panthers now have extended their record to 1-6. Coach Ron Rivera probably has about as much chance of keeping his job as John Fox did in 2010.

Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t doing well on the field and the results of his postgame news conferences have been even more disastrous.

What’s most stunning about this is that the whole world thought the Panthers were a team on the rise after going 6-10 in the first season for Newton and Rivera. I’m still trying to figure out how the Panthers have spun into chaos so quickly and in such spectacular fashion.

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent: With Hurney gone, different people who work in Bank of America Stadium give you different answers about who’s in charge. At the moment, this team is a rudderless ship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re 3-4 and there have been some signs coach Greg Schiano has this team headed in the right direction. But there still is a lot of work to be done.

That’s because predecessor Raheem Morris let things get so out of control last year that the Bucs were every bit as dysfunctional (or maybe even more so) as the Saints and Panthers are now. Schiano has cleaned out some of the problems (Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow) and he seems to be reconstructing quarterback Josh Freeman’s confidence.

But the Bucs haven’t completely turned the corner into a sea of tranquility. Schiano has a hardline, old-school, or whatever you want to call it, approach. Players seem to be tolerating it and that’s easy to do when there are positive signs. But, if the Bucs regress at all, players could cool on Schiano the way Tom Coughlin did.

The Bucs are coming off a huge win at Minnesota, but they lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending injury earlier this week. It seems every time the Bucs start to take a step forward, something pulls them back.

Dysfunction rating: 35 percent. There’s been a lot of change here and most of it seems to be for the better, but at least a couple of players seem to need Attention Deficit Disorder medication to focus in on what’s happening in Tampa Bay.

Atlanta Falcons: They’re the only undefeated team in the league and it’s largely because of the tone of stability set by coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When fans called for major moves in free agency, Smith and Dimitroff simply re-signed their own guys.

Running back Michael Turner and defensive end John Abraham each have had an off-field legal issue this season. That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in the NFL.

Those events caused only minor distractions and that’s because the Falcons have such strong leadership from the very top and because winning can take attention off everything else.

Dysfunction rating: 5 percent. That number can be knocked down to zero if the Falcons receive the memo, coming soon to Flowery Branch, that says, “Win a playoff game," and then they go out and make it happen.

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