By resisting the compulsion to make Bill Parcells an offer he couldn't refuse, and staying in-house to fill the void caused by head coach Sean Payton's season-long suspension, the New Orleans Saints told the football world they're fully capable of handling the bounty scandal without outside intervention.
That's an admirable sentiment that will play well with the base, but Joe Vitt's appointment as interim head coach also made a pair of troubling, perplexing statements. First, that the Crescent City will be chaos central for the next nine months. Second, that not only will no one responsible for the franchise's predicament be punished internally, but one culpable coach – Vitt – is actually being rewarded.
Translation: We're in a state of confusion, and that's the way we like it down in Louisiana. Take THAT, Roger Goodell.
If Saints owner Tom Benson was looking to send the rest of the league a message that the chastened franchise had a sincere desire to repent and decontaminate, he'd have done anything other than tab Vitt, the team's linebackers coach/assistant head coach, to fill in for Payton.
Put it this way: In terms of improving the team's current image, even Bobby Petrino would have been a cleaner choice.
For one thing, Vitt was one of three coaches punished for their respective roles in the bounty scandal. The other two are Payton (suspended through the end of the 2012 season) and his former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, since hired in the same capacity by the St. Louis Rams and now suspended for at least the 2012 campaign, if not longer.
Given that Vitt, who'll be shelved for the first six regular season games, was believed to be in the meeting room last January in which Williams delivered his now infamous speech on the eve of the Saints' divisional-round playoff defeat to the San Francisco 49ers, it's awfully hard not to view him as part of the institutional problem.
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Throw in the fact that Vitt, like fellow suspension-servers Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, was accused of playing a central role in the swept-under-the-rug Vicodin-theft imbroglio of two years ago, and it's clear that Benson isn't overly worried about making amends.
Instead, the Saints are setting themselves up for a classic case of 2007 Patriots-style perpetrators-posing-as-aggrieved-victims syndrome. I'll elaborate on that in a moment.
First, beyond the bad look, here's why Vitt's appointment is a dubious decision:
On paper, the three men who made the call – Benson, Loomis and Payton – are striking a blow for continuity. I can certainly understand why the latter two would want this type of supposed cohesiveness: Job security. Whereas many owners would have fired Loomis for (according to the NFL's investigation report) lying both to league investigators and to Benson himself, this general manager will return after missing half of the 2012 regular season.
Some owners might also have considered firing Payton, who also was deemed to have been dishonest during the league's investigation. Benson, however, seems to be doing everything he possibly can to ensure that Payton will return without enduring any threat to his leadership, as Vitt – even if the Saints succeed – will be viewed internally and externally as a mere extension of his suspended boss.
Yet if Benson really wanted continuity, could he have made a more convoluted choice?
Here is the plan for 2012, as I understand it:
• Vitt runs the offseason program and acts as head coach through training camp and the preseason, at which point he steps aside to serve his six-game suspension and gives way to an interim-interim coach (likely offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, according to a report by ESPN's Adam Schefter).
• Loomis also disappears after the preseason, giving way to an interim general manager.
• Vitt reappears in late October and again takes the reins, relegating Kromer to position-coach status.
• Two weeks later, Loomis also returns, and the interim GM gets demoted.
• As soon as the Saints' season ends – possibly as late as Super Bowl XLVII, which will be played in (you guessed it) the Louisiana Superdome – Payton seizes Vitt's headset and takes command once again.
That's a lot of transitioning for a group of players already shaken by the resounding force of Goodell's punishment. As I suggested in a Yahoo! video segment earlier this week, perhaps the Saints will consider having each member of the coaching staff take charge for one of the games on the 2012 schedule. At this point, why not go all the way over the top?
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Now consider that the commissioner hasn't even announced the penalties for individual players, with several current Saints (including veteran middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the team's defensive leader) staring at possible suspensions. Yes, it gets worse.
Fortunately the Saints have a clear-cut locker-room leader and calming force in star quarterback Drew Brees. Oh, wait – Brees, locked in a stare down with the team over a long-term contract, hasn't signed his one-year tender after being franchised and thus may not be part of the team's offseason program for the foreseeable future. Gulp.
This is not to say that the Saints are necessarily headed for disaster in 2012. As with the post-Spygate Pats, who produced the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history before falling just short of perfection with a Super Bowl XLII defeat to the Giants, that us-against-the-world vibe, when properly channeled, can be a powerful motivating force.
"Exactly," one Saints defender told me Thursday night. "And you can't forget the diehard 'Who Dat Nation.' I mean, how harsh do you have to be? Make an example [of us], I understand – but try and cripple a top-tier franchise? I mean, come on."
If the Saints' players band together in an effort to strike back against a commissioner who meted out what they believe was an unduly harsh punishment, more power to them. However, whereas the '07 Pats still benefitted from the guidance of Spygate's architect, coach Bill Belichick, Payton will be invisible, as will his designated stand-in for the first six games.
The emotion will be there, but converting it into sustained success won't be easy, especially with all the upheaval the Saints will be experiencing in 2012. On some level, I believe Benson understands that; that he's willing to take the hit, if only to prove to Goodell that it's his team, and he'll run it any damn way he sees fit.
To the owner, perhaps, it's worth it to send that message. However, should the Saints buckle under the stress of continuous chaos in the coaching box, something tells me the denizens of Who Dat Nation won't be quite as cool with a lost season and that they might make a few statements of their own.
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