METAIRIE, La. – Fresh off his seven-week bounty-related suspension, New Orleans interim coach Joe Vitt did not wait an extra second to rejoin the team – in Florida.
After watching Sunday’s game from an undisclosed location in the Tampa area, he flew back to New Orleans with the Saints after they beat the Buccaneers 35-28 in a game Vitt was barred from attending.
On Monday, he said his suspension was excruciating.
“I agonized,” he said. “It’s hard to go through that. I’ve been with these guys for seven years. I care very deeply for this team. When you’re not there on game day, win or lose, with guys that you respect and love, it was a challenge.”
The Saints losing their first four games under his interim replacement, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, made it even more agonizing. New Orleans has won two in row but still faces an uphill battle to climb into playoff contention a year after finishing 13-3.
First upon Vitt’s agenda is fixing the NFL’s worst defense statistically.
The Saints (2-4) have allowed a league-high 465.5 yards per game under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, including 513 to Tampa Bay.
“I’m certainly not a miracle worker,” Vitt said. “I’m humble to be back here. I met with (Spagnuolo) this morning, and we know there are things we can do better from a coaching standpoint and from a players’ standpoint and from a schematic standpoint.”
Vitt can help just by coaching the linebackers, his position responsibility. The Saints have been down a defensive staff member since his suspension started at the end of the preseason.
“I know it’s been hard for him as much as he loves the team to see us playing the last six or seven weeks,” linebacker Scott Shanle said. “Everybody was excited to see him back. He went around on the plane talking to different guys just to catch up.”
The serious work began when Vitt got back to his office around 9 p.m. Sunday. Fewer than 12 hours later, he already had talked to every assistant coach individually, the team doctors, owner Tom Benson and team president Dennis Lauscha in an attempt to make up for his lost time.
Although Vitt is much more fiery than the reserved Kromer, neither coaches nor players expect any significant changes in tone. From the day training camp started without head coach Sean Payton, who is suspended for the season, the Saints have preached staying the course Payton laid out over six years.