NEW ORLEANS -- The Superdome is more town hall meeting than football stadium these days. Folks still come dressed in their Sunday best, all awash in black and old gold, the fleur-de-lis tattooed on many faces and hearts. But unlike in the past, when the faithful would flock and only take issue with the team across the field from the Saints, the enemy seems to be everywhere.
It’s now “Who Dey?”
The us-against-them card is a tactic so worn that all the tread is gone. But in New Orleans, it has traction. It resonates like a sermon at the revival churches you see in the parishes. The voice of the congregation inside the Dome goes something like this:
Dey hatin’ on us!
Dey out to get us!
Dey doin’ us wrong!
Who exactly are “dey?” Well, a trip to New Orleans gives a hint. “Dey” is anyone who buys the notion of the Saints being ruthless hit men -- which, around here, feels like the entire world. But “dey” is especially NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his Draconian jurisprudence, which fell on the Saints like a drunk staggering around the Quarter at 3 a.m. All because a league investigation concluded that the Saints created a bounty system designed to encourage players to take aim at opponents and injure certain body parts.
With the season approaching, vendor business is brisk on Poydras Street, where the face of embattled coach Sean Payton -- suspended for a year by Goodell -- is silk-screened on T-shirts. Because this is New Orleans, a place where folks kick up their heels during funerals, frustrated fans are also protesting to a catchy beat. The fight song most in rotation is “Free Sean Payton,” with 5-Star and T-Bone laying down the rhymes to an anthem designed to point out the hypocrisy of a league that thrives on hard contact:
“Now dey say we done sinned, throw my coach up in the pen/For about one year but we still gon’ bring the fear/We still gon’ bring the pain to all the teams we see/It’s gonna be ease ‘cuz we got Drew Brees.”
Maybe the lyrics need polish, but the message is clear: In tough times, there’s a tendency to dwell on what’s missing rather than recognizing what’s not. And that’s what this season, with all of its potential for doom, has whittled down to in New Orleans. No, the Saints won’t have their coach, who inherited a dismal franchise in 2006 and turned it around; no NFL team has won more games since. But they do have their quarterback, perhaps the purest in football, who appears hell-bent on making sure this team puts a bounty on the Lombardi Trophy -- a trophy that will be awarded in the Dome, which hosts the next Super Bowl.
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“There is only one goal,” said Brees. “One goal.”
In case anyone forgot, or was too far lost in the Bountygate fog to notice, Brees eagerly reminds you that the Saints are just two years removed from their lone Super Bowl victory. He states, rather pointedly, “The bar is still set high around here.”
But if Brees thought winning a Super Bowl for a franchise known for futility was tough, winning one in the aftermath of Bountygate might be twice as hard. They lost Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma for a year. Given the magnitude and cost of the scandal from a manpower standpoint, the Saints have an alibi if they fail. That’s why Brees, a vocal critic of the NFL’s punishment this spring, insisted that all eyes in the locker room remain on the prize, rather than peering in the rear-view mirror at the gorilla on the trunk.
“I think we’ve done a good job of that now,” Brees said the other day, with emphasis on “now.” While conceding that the city has embraced victimization, Brees said the Saints have begun the process of channeling their own bitter emotions in another direction.
“I don’t think we have that mentality,” he said. “I don’t preach it anymore. We’ve always had a chip on our shoulder. We’ve always had something to prove. Teams are giving it their best shot against us because we’ve had success. They’re aiming at us. We have enough things to worry about [other] than who’s rooting for us and who’s rooting against us.”
Nobody on the Saints mentions the B-word in public anymore, unless it’s in hushed tones. Even then, it’s clear they’re tired of bounty talk. They’re tired of being stigmatized and tired of being targeted and tired of wondering how the head-coaching situation will shake out this season. Tired of wondering if Vilma will win his case on appeal (those odds are longer than the line outside K-Paul’s). The preseason is about preparation for the future, and it can become wearisome to be constantly reminded about the past.
Yet two weeks ago, a small twin-engine airplane circled above the Saints camp, dragging a “Free Payton” banner. It drew laughs from the fans, while players paused and pointed. Safety Roman Harper joked that he paid for the ad.
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No matter how hard they try to ignore it, Bountygate hovers over the Saints like that plane. And also like the XXXL-sized poster of Payton wearing a headset and telling players, “Do Your Job.” Thanks to owner Tom Benson, who came up with the idea, it hangs defiantly inside the training facility and watches over practice like Big Brother. It shows Payton steely eyed, wearing a scowl, prompting linebacker coach Joe Vitt to crack: “That was Dallas Clark’s third-quarter catch in the Super Bowl and [Payton] was looking at me. Every player on our team has gotten that look.”
It’s also the look Goodell shot in the Saints’ direction last spring. While the players were busy bleeding and sweating off August workouts, the bounty case was trudging through the legal canals, moving at glacial speed, and showing little if any promise of a complete reversal.
You know the story by now. Goodell’s sleuths were tipped off about a dangerous development. They found that Saints defensive players were getting cash for inflicting bodily harm. The league cited evidence that Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator, instituted the bounty system when he arrived in 2009. Between 22 and 27 former and current players were involved, the league said, Vilma being the most prominent. The NFL’s hammer was firm and final, and shook up the front office too: In addition to Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis (recently cleared of charges of bugging the opposing coaches’ booth at the Dome) and Vitt, who will return as the interim head coach, were also suspended.
Goodell punishing the Saints for bounties is a bit like Bud Selig rapping baseball teams for retaliatory pitches high and tight. Bounties are nothing new in football; one could even argue that they’re part of the game’s culture. The Saints just got caught, by a commissioner on a campaign to clean up the league. The timing for New Orleans couldn’t be worse.
The NFL is under siege from concussion issues. Dozens of former players, their brains short-circuited, are coming forth and pointing an accusing finger at the league. Years of violent hits, they say, left them defenseless against brain trauma, damage and memory loss. So how would Goodell look if he turned a blind eye toward a tactic designed to potentially harm players for life?
Goodell is looking out for the league (including the Saints, who would probably raise hell if another team targeted them for bounties). He’s doing all he can as commissioner to sanitize the over-the-top violence, protect players and make their lives easier in retirement. Really, if the evidence is as conclusive as the NFL claims, the Saints didn’t give him much choice. Besides, NFL players granted Goodell broad power in the last labor contract, including the right to punish anyone he perceives as a threat to the league and its brand.
Payton has gone underground, but Vilma will not go so quietly. A prideful player known for his intelligence as well as his aggressive play, Vilma will go through the legal channels until either he or his appeals process is exhausted. He has a defamation suit and, aligned with the NFL players union, is seeking a dismissal of his suspension. To that, the legal eagles say, good luck.
“This case has always been an uphill battle for the players,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University. “Courts rarely interfere with a commissioner’s authority.”
The courts, in the end, traditionally allow a league’s commissioner free rein to do his job unless due process has been lost. In any event, the legal maneuverings take time, which isn’t on the side of the suspended players.
“We’re coming up on Week 1 of the season and the justice system moves pretty slowly,” Feldman said. “It’s very difficult to get the courts to interfere with an arbitrator’s decision. It’s very difficult to get the courts to grant an injunction against the league. Jonathan Vilma is asking for both right now.”
Even if Judge Helen Berrigan were to rule in favor of Vilma in federal court, in the Eastern District of Louisiana, it would most likely be appealed in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and drag on from there, perhaps matching the length of Vilma’s suspension. Meanwhile, the league appears unwilling to soften its stance.
“I think they’re being prudent and considering all of their options,” said Feldman. “And also trying to protect the integrity of the game and power of the commissioner’s office, while also providing fairness to the players.”
And so it comes back to that: fairness. Did the Saints deserve such harsh punishment, unprecedented in league history? Does New Orleans have the right to cling to victim status, sell those Free Sean Payton shirts and keep that rap song in heavy rotation?
“The fans are looking at that first game, against the Redskins, that it’s upon their shoulders to help the team win,” said Bobby Hebert, the ex-Saints quarterback who hosts a popular sports talk show. “They think it’s going to be close to the spiritual, religious feeling it was when the Dome re-opened after Katrina. They look at Roger Goodell like he’s the Evil Empire. It’s like the Saints can do no wrong and they’re taking it out on the commissioner, who is working the best interest of the game.”
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Purely from a talent standpoint, there’s no reason to expect the Saints won’t make an honest attempt to host the Super Bowl. They missed a chance, by nine seconds, to play for the NFC title last season -- against the Giants, the eventual champions, whom they whipped by 25 just a month earlier. They’ve lost only eight times in the two years since their lone Super Bowl win. Payton, Loomis and Brees -- together longer than any GM-coach-quarterback trifecta currently in the NFL -- have laid a foundation that hasn’t crumbled.
Vilma will be replaced by Curtis Lofton, who’s had a big camp and is coming off a career year with the Falcons. There are some indications that Vilma wasn’t going to hold his job this season, anyway. Why else would the Saints give five years and $33 million to Lofton? And while the Saints’ D was exposed by the Niners, the overhaul will be overseen by ex-Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, saluted for the sneaky schemes he perfected with the Eagles and Giants. Spagnuolo’s defense in St. Louis sacked Brees six times last season, and when he was in New York, he got Tom Brady five times.
“We’re still trying to jell as a defense, with a few new players and a new coordinator,” said defensive end Cameron Jordan. “I think we’ll be fine. Everyone around here is anxious to show what we can do, and how good we can be.”
There is Jimmy Graham, the remarkable tight end with the hoops background, already a serious impact player after just three years (99 catches last season). The backfield is reliable and includes Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles and will receive a boost if second-year man Mark Ingram begins to replicate what he did to win the Heisman at Alabama.
Obviously, there’s the absence of Payton. The Saints will see just how much a coach actually means to his team, in terms of victories. But the Saints are not a franchise in flux.
Aaron Kromer leaves his offensive line duties to fill in as head coach for the first six games until Vitt, the fill-in for Payton, finishes his suspension. Kromer and Vitt are Payton confidants and share his DNA. Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael can remain devoted to their units. Carmichael assumed the play-calling duties from Payton early last season, when Payton absorbed a sideline hit that broke his leg; Brees called the transfer of play-calling power “karma.” The Saints promptly tore up the turf, especially in the playoffs, where they dropped 45 points (and 626 yards) on the Lions and 32 points on the 49ers. All the offensive gizmos implanted by Payton won’t go away simply because he’s away.
Payton is the guy who called for an onside kick to start the second half of a Super Bowl. And he knows what emotional buttons to push. But at this point, won’t the players already be edgy on Sundays? A challenge for the Saints would arise if they’re winning when Vitt returns from suspension. Do they stick with Kromer, or make the switch as planned? That would be a pleasant problem to have, and it’s not totally unrealistic to think they’ll be 5-1 or close by then, mainly because Bountygate didn’t KO the most important person in the organization.
It all comes back to Brees. The last time he suited up in a real game, he completed 40 passes for 462 yards and four TDs. And that was typical of his entire 2011 season, epic by anyone’s standards, when he set NFL records for passing yards (5,476), completion percentage (71.2) and completions (468). No other quarterback in football enjoys a system that suits him as perfectly.
Brees just had another child, his third. He is $60 million richer, the guaranteed portion of his new $100 million contract. He has footwork that would get him on “Dancing With The Stars” if he weren’t using it to slip the pass rush; Brees was sacked only 24 times last season, amazingly low considering how often he throws. Mostly, he has that arm and those eyes and every reason to believe that the upcoming season will be pretty close to last year, when his QB rating was 110.6.
Will anyone dare bet against the Saints as long as Brees is healthy? He has the system, the freedom, quality receivers and an offense that runs on high octane. Certainly, he needs Spagnuolo to devise a defensive scheme to keep the other team from going nuts. Brees also must keep his teammates from falling on a built-in excuse to fail, and so when camp began, Brees warned them against adopting a woe-is-us mentality.
“With the circumstances this offseason we feel we’ve been put at a disadvantage,” Brees said. “We lost our coach, we lost our general manager, we lost some key people at key positions. But we move on because we have to. We have no choice. And the guys know that. We’ve talked about it in the offseason, we’ve talked about it in the preseason. We’ll focus on the season and things we can control. Everything else, it is what it is. Worry about what we can control, and work with a purpose.”
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If Brees and the Saints can pull it off, there would be no sweeter satisfaction than winning the Lombardi Trophy in their city, in the Superdome, under all that black and old gold confetti, and taking it from none other than Roger Goodell. You know what memory that would revive? It would be Al Davis snatching the trophy from his sworn rival, former commish Pete Rozelle, and uttering the immortal phrase, “Just win, baby.”
The last team punished by the league office was the 2006 Patriots, zapped for Spygate; they breezed through an undefeated regular season before being tripped in the Super Bowl.
The Saints would take great pleasure in getting that handshake from Goodell, but not more than the city of New Orleans, still feeling unjustly singled out and punished. No doubt, the “Free Sean Payton” song would bounce, non-stop, off the Superdome walls. T-Bone and 5-Star would suddenly get Kanye cred for coming up with gems like this: “I really think you hatin’ for what you did to Payton/It’s obvious and blatant, treatin’ Saints like dey Satan/You can’t stop a Who Dat/Boy I thought you knew dat.”
Poetic justice if not poetry, right? Thankfully, the 2012 slogan embraced by the Saints is that three-word mantra penned by Payton, his face hanging on a poster seen daily by the players: Do Your Job. The city is doing its job by groaning; the Saints must do theirs by winning. All they need is a real, live body to lead them, and lucky for them, Drew Brees never tried to injure anyone. That said, he is hoping to deliver a vicious tackle on a certain trophy.