FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The overall lesson of focus and determination while under attack was more important than any individual and team drills the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots ran Tuesday.
Over the past five years, no two teams have ever experienced more scrutiny and criticism. New England went through an entire season of wrath in the aftermath of Spygate early in the 2007 campaign. Now, the bounty scandal of 2012 hangs around the Saints on a daily basis.
Fair or not, that's the reality of the situation. Moreover, is the criticism actually a touchstone, an emotional prod that each team can use from time to time to generate a little anger and additional focus?
"When I was here that season, the players, we would talk about it a lot to get us going," said Patriots wide receiver Donte' Stallworth, who was a backup on the 2007 New England team that went 16-0 in the regular season before losing to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. "Coach [Bill] Belichick never had to say anything to us about it. We knew."
The players knew just how much Belichick seethed with anger over the mere implication that what his team had and was accomplishing was somehow tainted. Even though the Patriots have gone to two Super Bowls and have put together a stunning 64-16 record in the regular season since '07, there are still taunts and teases from the outside world. Ultimately, the Patriots still live with the stain of Spygate.
Now the Saints get their turn. You have to wonder if New Orleans will harness that energy for a similarly successful run. If the defiance of Saints interim coach Joe Vitt is any indication, the answer is obvious. Vitt was asked if the Saints could learn anything from New England's experience with scandal.
Vitt figuratively spit on the question.
"Let me just say this: No. 1, I made this statement [Monday] and [suspended Saints coach] Sean [Payton] has made this statement – that this franchise that we're going against is the Microsoft of our industry with what they've done. No. 2, in my era as a coach, Bill Belichick is the coach of my era. He's the Don Shula, the Bill Walsh of my era," said Vitt, who'll serve a six-game suspension to open the season because of the bounty scandal. "So they've had some adversity and have done a great job of handling it. I've had conversations with Bill. We know that our players are strong. We've been through adversity before, but there's really no comparisons as you're getting out to these practices. We're trying to get better, both teams every day."
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While the Patriots did experience "some adversity," they didn't have to deal with the additional drama of their scandal playing out in court and some or all of the season hanging in the balance for players such as defensive end Will Smith or linebacker Jonathan Vilma. New England's punishments included fines and the loss of a draft pick, penalties also suffered by New Orleans.
For the Saints, there is constant and palpable anger in every corner of the building, from the equipment staff to the front office. One employee even expresses a popular notion that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was out to get Payton and that the league PR staff is waging a campaign against the Saints. The reality is that the league would like nothing more than for this to go away and for fans to be focused on the field.
In the end, both teams had at least one significant thing going in their favor – a loaded offense led by an elite quarterback. The Saints' Drew Brees is coming off a campaign in which he broke Dan Marino's single-season passing mark, while Tom Brady has won two MVP awards since '07.
"I don't ever see Tom let up," Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker said. "He's one of the most intense guys I have ever seen."
"Tom hasn't changed one bit since I was here the first time," Stallworth said.
On Tuesday, his edginess showed in his play. On one play in a seven-on-seven, red-zone drill, Brady threw a sloppy interception to New Orleans linebacker Curtis Lofton. It was, by far, Brady's worst play of an otherwise strong day of practice for him.
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On the next play, Brady made a point. As tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski ran a combination route (Hernandez running to the front of the end zone and Gronkowski running to the back along basically the same line of sight for Brady), Brady easily could have thrown to Hernandez. Instead, he hesitated and threw the more difficult pass to Gronkowski, who jumped to make an impressive catch. Maybe it was just a bit of bravado, but it was the kind of play where Brady was showing everyone just who he still is.
Just like anyone else who was around the Patriots in 2007, Stallworth believes the hint of scandal is part of what keeps Brady pushing so hard.
"I think you see it in the whole organization, even if they don't talk about it," said Stallworth, who spent his first four NFL seasons with the Saints. "I've been other places and seen other teams. This team has a different edge to it."
And now, the exact same could be said for the Saints.
"Are people around here upset?" New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham said, rhetorically. "Yeah, that's one way to put it."
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