"THE SHOW must go on," says new Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton.
And it will, despite some trying circumstances. New Orleans is attempting to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, and the Saints have enough talent to make a run—including the most prolific quarterback in the league over the last half decade, very good skill players and a formidable defense. But then there's the fallout from the bounty scandal, which has made Goodell the dirtiest word in town since Katrina. No team has ever had to contend with the obstacles—remaining Saints players, coaches and front-office people have been suspended for a combined 50 games—that cloud this franchise. The show will go on, but how smoothly?
Sean Payton, suspended for the season, will coach his 12-year-old son, Connor, on a team in Dallas this summer. Assistant head and linebackers coach Joe Vitt takes over the head-coaching job. Sort of. He's also been suspended, for the first six games. The Saints announced last Thursday that the interim interim coach would be Aaron Kromer, the 45-year-old offensive line coach and run-game coordinator who is in his fifth season in New Orleans. As long as the Saints don't start the season 0--6, the players have confidence that Vitt will handle the last 10 games in much the same way Payton would have. Says quarterback Drew Brees, "I think about this a lot, about how it'll work with the coaches, because the hard thing is, your head coach [he snaps his fingers] is gone in a second. But even though he's not here physically, I hear his voice every day in my head. I think Joe will make our mentality what Sean would have wanted: 'Hey, move on and find a way.'"
Brees is as much of a coach on the field as any quarterback in football, so let's just assume the New Orleans offense is going to score enough points to win. It's silly to think the Saints won't be a top five attack, not with the return of every key player—except guard Carl Nicks, who left as a free agent—from a team that averaged 34.2 points per game in 2011.
On defense, the key guy is Lofton, who played four seasons with Atlanta before signing a five-year, $27.5 million deal in March. With Jonathan Vilma in limbo—the 30-year-old linebacker was suspended for the season but has filed two federal lawsuits against the NFL and is asking for a temporary restraining order that would allow him to play while the case proceeds—Lofton had two jobs to do: learn the defense well enough to be its on-field quarterback, and replace Vilma, who was the unit's unquestioned leader. As a player Lofton, 26, is better, particularly dropping in coverage, than the declining Vilma, whose three knee procedures in the last year make his future in football questionable anyway.
"I know there's pressure on me, because this is one of the most unusual situations a player's ever stepped into," Lofton said in camp. "I got 10 guys staring at me, waiting for the play before every snap, and this is a cerebral defense where the middle linebacker controls every play and the changes that might happen before the snap. Plus, I'm going from one rival to another. We hated the Saints in Atlanta. I've been called a traitor by some of my buddies there."
Lofton said he spoke to Vilma shortly after signing with New Orleans. "He told me, 'No one has thin skin here. Don't worry about stepping on my toes. Just go out and play,'" Lofton says.
That could be the mantra for this team: Just go out and play. And you can feel it being around the Saints—there's a collective chip on their shoulders, and they'll certainly use the us-against-the-world motivation for the next four months, if not longer.
"Is it going to be difficult?" Brees asks. "Yes. Are we facing more adversity than any team ever has? Probably. But look at what we've overcome here, starting with Katrina. This franchise shouldn't even be here right now. All we've done is overcome the odds. I think I speak for every guy in this locker room, and every coach, when I say: We can do it again. We have to."
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 1
in my career," Spagnuolo says. "I think this group, Curtis Lofton included, has embraced more in a shorter period of time than anybody else." But embracing it and succeeding with it are two different things.
Percentage of third- and fourth-and-long plays converted by the Saints in 2011—15% higher than the second-ranked Colts and almost double the NFL average.
Pass rushes by Roman Harper, 51 more than the next-place safety. Harpers' 7 ½ sacks were more than double that of any other safety.
Touchdowns in coverage allowed by Jonathan Vilma. Only one inside linebacker gave up as many: Curtis Lofton, the man signed to replace the suspended Vilma.
MICHAEL DWYER/AP (LOFTON)
Lofton (50) comes over from Atlanta to fill Vilma's role as play-caller and emotional leader of the D.
DERICK E. HINGLE/US PRESSWIRE (SPAGNUOLO)