METAIRIE, La. – Blame the bounty scandal.
That’s what many in New Orleans are doing, including some Saints.
They blame it for overshadowing their entire season, for unfairly portraying the team as the NFL’s No. 1 sinners.
And they blame it, in part, for a mistake-prone 0-4 start that led to New Orleans not making the playoffs for the first time in four years.
Players and coaches had said they would not allow the NFL’s disruptive probe of the Saints’ cash-for-hits program and resulting suspensions – including head coach Sean Payton’s full-season ban – to become an excuse for failure. At the same time, few at club headquarters say it had no bearing on the club’s performance.
“Forever you can equate the two and I think it’s fair to equate the two,” Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said. “Never has a coach been suspended for an entire year and it’s a pretty big deal when you look at the grand scheme of what a head coach does, especially a coach like Coach Payton, who’s had the success he’s had.”
General manager Mickey Loomis was suspended eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six games before returning to serve in the interim head coaching role he assumed when Payton’s suspension began in the offseason. While Vitt was away, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer stepped in as interim to the interim head coach.
Two defensive captains also were punished initially. But linebacker Jonathan Vilma and end Will Smith undertook a lengthy legal battle that overturned their suspensions, which otherwise would have sideline Vilma for a year and Smith for four games.
Publicly, Vitt preached that the Saints must avoid the temptation to point to the bounty probe when things went wrong. Yet Vitt had a different take when he appeared earlier this month as a witness at a closed hearing for the players’ appeals of their punishment.
Speaking before former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed to oversee the hearings, Vitt made it clear he felt the NFL had undermined the competitive integrity of the league with harsh punishments based primarily on the testimony of two fired assistant coaches: former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo.