NEW ORLEANS — It’s a lazy afternoon at Cooter Brown’s Tavern uptown, where the patrons sweat on the porch and the drinks sweat on the bar. As usual, it doesn’t take long for talk to turn to the hometown Saints.
“You know what, we’re used to this kind of stuff,” said Scott Lepley, a 23-year-old graduate student who is growing increasingly agitated. “Take our coach, our GM, our players, take it all. This isn’t even close to the worst we’ve dealt with. Are you kidding me? We had our stadium demolished by a storm, we had Aaron Brooks at quarterback, Mike Ditka destroyed our franchise.
“We survived all that,” he said. “We’ll survive this.”
The Crescent City has banded together again. From the local hangouts to the Saints’ locker room, it’s Us vs. Them, the Saints vs. the NFL, New Orleans vs. the World.
The team took the practice field Thursday afternoon for the first time since NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dropped the hammer on the franchise, punishing the team for running a bounty program that paid players cash bonuses to injure opponents. The Saints’ first organized team activity session was mostly remarkable for who wasn’t present. Sean Payton is still listed on the roster as head coach, but he’s not allowed at the team facility for a year.
Quarterback Drew Brees is in the midst of contract negotiations, so the first-team offense was captained by Chase Daniel.
And linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who’s allowed to be at the team facility while he appeals his year-long suspension, spent most of the hot morning rehabbing his knee indoors. Last week, Vilma filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell, just the latest all-caps headline from New Orleans this offseason.
The Saints open the season in 16 weeks against the Washington Redskins, and players here say they’re eager to shift the football world’s focus to the playing field.
“We have to move forward and it starts now,” guard Jahri Evans said. “Dwelling on it and thinking about it, letting it affect our progress, would be a hindrance to what we’re trying to do.”
Still, the offseason turmoil is ever-present. From Bourbon Street to the Garden District, Saints fans are still seething over the perceived injustices heaped on their beloved Saints in recent months.
Lauren Thom is the proprietor of Fleurty Girl, a popular chain of clothing shops around New Orleans. Within an hour of Payton’s suspension, Thom posted a T-shirt design on Facebook: gold letters that spell out “Free Payton.” She had 1,000 orders that first day, before the shirt had even been printed, and she’s had thousands more every week since.
“We had to bring in extra staff, had to do overtime. It was just unlike anything we’d seen,” Thom said. “Believe me, no one here condones violence, but the punishment just seemed harsh. This was a way for us to make a statement — a protest via T-shirt.”
There was little in the way of protest at the team facility this week. The NFL train doesn’t slow for embattled franchises to regroup. The Saints anointed defensive assistant Joe Vitt as interim coach — though he faces a six-game suspension in the bounty scandal himself — and after the team concluded its first OTA Thursday, he said he’s still getting used to the new responsibilities.
“Listen, I’m not going to lie to you,” he said, “I’m still finding my way a little bit.”
For his first set of practices, Vitt was overseeing several players who might have needed ID cards to get into the building. The coach and his players all say they’re confident that Brees eventually will sign his contract and be in uniform for the team’s opener against the Redskins. The Saints placed an exclusive-rights franchise tag on Brees, last season’s offensive player of the year, who reportedly is seeking a deal that could make him the game’s highest-paid player.
“I think the man deserves the world,” Saints wide receiver Lance Moore said.
In the meantime, Daniel is trying to match Brees’s tempo and demeanor at practice.
“I’d say I’m No. 1-B right now,” Daniel said. “I obviously know what my role is on this team, and right now it’s to prepare like the starter and to take the No. 1 snaps.”
Vitt spent much of the week’s practice sessions working with the linebackers, his old position group. While newly hired Steve Spagnuolo retools the unit formerly skippered by Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator suspended indefinitely for orchestrating the bounty program, a lot of eyes will be on the Saints’ defense. Some surely will be studying the scheme, but the football world will also closely scrutinize the intensity level of a unit accused of trying to injure opponents’ for money.
“I’m pretty sure everybody’s going to play with the same intensity,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, “the same fire and the passion that we’ve played with over the last few years. . . . I don’t think anybody’s really worried about us getting scrutinized. We’re going to go out and play the way it’s supposed to be played.”