For months now, quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints have heard the charges, absorbed the penalties, appealed the verdicts, channeled the frustration, defended the names and tried to move forward in a football bubble.
The ‘Bountygate’ scandal that has enveloped the franchise for most of this year keeps bubbling.
While coach Sean Payton sits idle, suspended for a year, the four players suspended by the NFL for their part in a program that allegedly paid defensive players for knocking other teams’ stars out of games, last week won temporary reinstatement from a judge, though another round of meetings is set for next week.
Only linebacker Jonathan Vilma, currently injured, and defensive end Will Smith are still with the Saints. Smith is expected to play Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
Assistant coach Joe Vitt is forced to sit out the first six regular-season games. General manager Mickey Loomis can’t be involved for the first eight games. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, deemed to have been in charge of the program, is suspended indefinitely from the league.
When the regular season began last Sunday, the Saints were among the Week 1 surprises, losing 40-32 at home to the Washington Redskins and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.
“We felt like (the scandal fallout) wasn’t affecting us but from our first performance it obviously must have been more than we thought. Now, hopefully, we have a wake-up call and realize it’s time to play football,” Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer said.
Brees arrived in New Orleans with Payton seven years ago and they were largely responsible for transforming a traditionally underachieving franchise into Super Bowl champions in the 2009 season. The success has continued with the Saints rewriting offensive records last season, including Brees setting the NFL’s single-season passing record.
When Payton accepted his one-year suspension, cutting ties with the team this season, he left Brees and others with a simple charge: move forward.
It may not be as easy as that.
“Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t,” Brees said this week when asked if the lingering scandal impacted the Saints’ play last week.
“Even though (Payton is) not here, we still do things the same way. We prepare the same way. The schedule’s the same. Everything is the same. A lot of the same players. A lot of the same leadership.
“I feel we’re an organization that does things the right way. I think it’s the expectation level, too. We set the bar pretty high for ourselves. We’ve been able to back that up.
“Unfortunately, for one reason or another on Sunday, we just weren’t able to put it together. It was a lot of little things. It wasn’t like it all came at the same time. It was just like every drive there was something that prevented us from getting the drive going or getting in a rhythm. It was just one of those days.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera has watched the Saints story unfold from afar. From a football perspective, Rivera believes there’s a clear path for New Orleans.
“The big thing is to try to rally around it,” Rivera said. “Mike Ditka used to do it. Buddy Ryan used to do it. It was put us against the world.
“Coach Ditka always used to say circle the wagons. Buddy Ryan used to say it’s just the guys in this room. It’s an effective tool. It can also be an isolating tool.”
Brees has become the face of the franchise for both what he’s done on the field and off, helping the New Orleans region work through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. He’s a brilliant talent, engineering a unit that has led the NFL in total offense four of the past five seasons.
Before leaving, Brees said Payton told the team not to try to do too much. Stick to what has worked and make it work again.
For Brees, the message was not to try to do too much.
“It’s human nature that, hey, I’ve got to do more. But the reality is you can’t fall into that trap,” said Brees, who passed for 339 yards and three touchdowns against the Redskins.
“At times have we had to work through that a little bit? Yeah, yeah. Are we still working through it? Maybe.”
The most difficult part, Brees said, has been dealing with the perception of the Saints as a rogue organization.
“We’re an organization made up of really high-class people, people that have done things the right way,” Brees said. “We do things the right way and we work hard, we prepare hard. We treat people with respect. I feel there’s this image and this picture that’s been painted of us that’s completely untrue.
“It is what it is. All we can worry about is what we can control. I think enough’s been said in this offseason. It’s time to play ball. We want to get on the field. We want to win.”