Can New Orleans Saints succeed without Sean Payton?

March 22, 2012

Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson played 13 seasons for the New York Giants in the 1970s and ’80s. He played for four head coaches and learned first-hand that pro football is a transient business. Players must adapt quickly when a new regime comes in.

But none of those lessons will apply to the New Orleans Saints in the upcoming NFL season, Carson said Thursday, one day after the league suspended Saints Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for their roles in the team’s bounty system.

“At the end of the day in pro football, you have to move on,” Carson said. “Change is part of it. But this is going to be awkward. I went through several coaching changes in my career, but it was nothing like this. This is an entirely different thing.”

Across the league, opinion was mixed Thursday about the Saints’ chances for continued success on the field without Payton, the team’s former Super Bowl-winning coach who was suspended for an entire season.

If the loss of Payton, Loomis and Vitt isn’t damaging enough, Commissioner Roger Goodell also has promised to discipline some of the players most involved in the scheme to pay bonuses for hits that injured opponents.

The league’s March 2 report said 22 to 27 players were involved in the three-year-long bounty program. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma allegedly offered $10,000 to anyone who put Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game.

“There’s certainly no way it can help them,” former NFL coach Dick Vermeil said of Wednesday’s suspensions. “In the NFL, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. You never stay the same. They’re losing their leader. They’re losing, really, their offensive coordinator and game-day play-caller and game-planner, and he may be the best in the league at that. They’ll get by without him. But they won’t excel without him, in my opinion.”

The Saints have Steve Spagnuolo, the former head coach of the St. Louis Rams, on their staff as their defensive coordinator. They also have a highly regarded offensive coordinator in Pete Carmichael. The team has not yet named a replacement for Payton.

Goodell is consulting with DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, before deciding disciplinary measures for players, who, according to the league, primarily funded the bounty program. The U.S. Senate also weighed in Thursday, when a subcommittee hearing was planned to consider whether federal sports bribery laws should be expanded to include bounty schemes .

Former Washington Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot said he thinks the Saints are uniquely qualified to overcome the penalties because of the presence of quarterback Drew Brees, who set single-season NFL records last season for passing yards and completion percentage.

“It’s going to be hard for them,” Smoot said by phone. “But they have a coach on the field in Drew Brees. To me, they go hand in hand, Sean Payton and Drew Brees. I think their offense will be able to keep up the same pace. From the standpoint of the whole team, they’ll be able to band together. As football players, we’re always looking for things to bring us together. I’m looking for them to have that whole us-against-the-world mentality.”

Payton and Brees led the Saints to a Super Bowl triumph in 2010. Last season, the Saints reached an NFC semifinal before losing at San Francisco.

Because this situation is unprecedented, Carson said, there’s no telling exactly how things will turn out for the Saints.

“It can be a rallying cry for guys. The more veteran guys might take it as a challenge. They have a relationship with their coach and they’ll look at it as needing to play well to back him,” Carson said. “But with younger guys, it might be demoralizing because their leader isn’t there.”

The Saints’ best reply, Carson said, will be to win games.

“The older guys, they’ll rally around their coach and they’re going to want to stick it in the face of the league and the commissioner by winning anyway,” he said.

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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