Commentary

Questions, few answers for Saints

Payton-less Saints face leadership void, high uncertainty; how will they cope?

Originally Published: April 10, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

There is no manual for how the New Orleans Saints should proceed without their head coach, Sean Payton, there to lead them. There are no obvious, easy answers.

There will be minefields wherever the Saints step. With Payton set to go on hiatus on April 16, New Orleans has but a few days to figure out a plan, and put it in motion, and then hope it will work.

But Bill Parcells would have made a lot of sense.

It is unfortunate, on a number of levels, that Parcells has decided (according to team sources) he doesn't want to step into his protégé's mess and clean it up. Parcells could have provided one strong, experienced, unified voice to an organization in desperate need of one. He could have continued to preach Payton's message, which was derived, in part, from Payton's three seasons learning at Parcells' knee in Dallas.

Parcells could have erased any doubt about who is in charge. He would have been in charge. He could have managed the coaching staff, and then, in general manager Mickey Loomis' eight-game suspension to start the season, managed the team. He would not have had to worry about 2013. Parcells could have taken command of a team that doesn't need an astronomical amount of tinkering and tried to guide it toward the ultimate advantage of playing on its home field in the Super Bowl.

Imagine Parcells and the Saints in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. With Parcells at the helm, even with the eventuality that inevitable player suspensions will hamstring the defense at least somewhat early on, the Saints could have been a contender. Parcells knows how to get a team to the Super Bowl.

Sean Payton
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskySean Payton's suspension has created a state of uncertainty in New Orleans.

Sure, there is no guarantee Parcells would have worked. Maybe his ego would have been too big. Maybe his hard-line approach to dealing with players would have proved to be outdated. Maybe Parcells' love of the 3-4 defensive scheme would have clashed with new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's belief in the 4-3.

But Parcells would've given the Saints a singular voice. At 71 years old and with four decades of experience, he would have commanded respect.

Now, New Orleans is left with Plan B, or Plan C. It reminds me of the old adage in football regarding starting quarterbacks: If you have two, you don't have one. If you have a head coach by committee, what you really have is multiple voices and the potential for problems.

Not that this situation is easy. It isn't. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reports there are growing indications that the Saints will make assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt the interim head coach, a position he held in St. Louis for the final 11 games of the 2005 season. As the Saints' interim head coach, Vitt would lead New Orleans through offseason workouts and training camp.

Once the season starts, though, Vitt will have to take a seat on the couch, which means another voice would then have to emerge. During Vitt's six-game suspension, it is plausible that offensive line coach Aaron Kromer could take over as the interim's interim head coach. That would free Spagnuolo, the St. Louis Rams' coach for the previous three seasons, to focus solely on the defense. It would free offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael to focus on game plans and play calling, as he did last season when Payton had a knee injury.

So potentially it would go Vitt, then Kromer, then back to Vitt.

It is not ideal, but nothing about the Saints over the course of the next 10 months is going to be ideal.

There are so many questions. What happens if there is a dispute among the coaches? What happens when there is an issue with a player? Who really is in charge and has the authority to make a tough decision, especially when Loomis is sidelined for the first eight games?

If interim head coach Parcells would have been merely a substitute teacher, as some have suggested, would that make Vitt or Kromer the student teacher with little to no head-coaching experience on which to fall back?

With all of this uncertainty, will Payton really be able to sit back, as he must, and have no football-related contact with anyone in the organization? No conversations? No emails? No texts? It seems unlikely and, from the NFL's perspective, impossible to legislate. Commissioner Roger Goodell has established incentives for Payton to stay away, as outlined when Goodell decided Monday to uphold his initial suspensions of Payton, Loomis and Vitt for the Saints' bounty program under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But will the possibility of recouping some money and losing a late-round draft pick instead of a second-rounder in 2013 be enough?

It is an impossible situation, but the Saints can endure. New Orleans is a veteran team that knows how to win and has a strong locker room leader in QB Drew Brees. He will be key to their success, which is why New Orleans must make him whole with a new contract. They can't make him play under the franchise tag. They can't have Brees unhappy.

The Saints also undoubtedly will play the us-against-the-world card. Players love that. It is a rallying cry the New York Giants used to get to the Super Bowl and win it. To hear the Giants tell it, no one outside of their locker room thought they could win it all, but they did.

A perceived lack of respect can be a huge motivator.

With his punishments, Goodell has intentionally made it so that the Saints are at a disadvantage this season. It will not be easy, nor is it supposed to be easy.

Parcells would not have completely solved New Orleans problems. He isn't Payton. The Saints aren't his team. But Parcells certainly could have lessened the blow.