After a tumultuous 144 days, a training camp like none other in the New Orleans Saints’ 46-year history gets under way this week.
When 90 players report Tuesday for a team meeting that night with conditioning tests Wednesday, coach Sean Payton won’t be there — the result of a season-long suspension from a bounty scandal that rocked the NFL this spring.
Assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt will be in charge, as he has been since Payton’s departure from the team in mid-April. But Vitt, too, faces a six-game suspension that will commence when the regular season begins Sept. 9.
General Manager Mickey Loomis was also suspended for eight games, while middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was banned, like Payton, for the entire season. Defensive end Will Smith will sit out the first four games.
Other offseason distractions — an allegation that Loomis listened in on opposing coaches from his booth in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome between 2002 and 2004, Payton filing for divorce and Drew Brees’ protracted contract talks — weren’t nearly as damaging as the bounty scandal.
Still, the Saints say training camp will be business as usual when the first practice — one of 12 scheduled to be open to the public — is held at 4 p.m. Thursday at the team’s Metairie training facility.
Vitt said Payton wanted everything to be as normal as possible when he put together the training camp schedule before his suspension began April 16.
When the team’s nine-week offseason program ended in June, Vitt said Payton would have been proud of the players and coaches as well as the team’s entire support staff.
“When Sean left here there was one mandate: ‘Do your job,’ ” Vitt said. “And these guys have definitely done their job. We’re not only excited about what took place and happened in the OTAs (organized team activities), we’re really, really looking forward to getting to training camp.
“This might be the most talented football team we have had since we’ve been here.Now the mandate is going to be to put this thing together and move forward.”
The task continues Tuesday when the Saints begin preparing for a five-game exhibition schedule that starts with an Aug. 5 meeting with the Arizona Cardinals in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
Vitt is confident the players will return refreshed and ready to go after doing what they needed to do in the spring in laying the foundation for training camp and the regular season.
“What has happened to this football team is unprecedented,” he said. “If we are going to do something that has never been done before, then we have to do something that has never been done through the offseason.
“We’ve got to come back in the best shape that we have ever been in,” Vitt said. The commitment has to be stronger than it’s ever been.”
When fans get their first glimpse of the Saints, they will be looking at an offense that pretty much resembles the unit that set an NFL single-season record with 7,474 total yards in 2011.
It all starts, of course, with Brees. To the relief of the team’s nervous fans, he agreed to a five-year, $100 million deal on July 13 after some contentious contract negotiations through the spring and summer.
The big change is at left guard, where unrestricted free agent Ben Grubbs, a Pro Bowl pick with the Baltimore Ravens, takes over for All-Pro Carl Nicks, who left in free agency and is now with the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Wide receiver Robert Meachem departed in free agency as well, but the Saints used their fourth-round pick on Nick Toon, the son of former New York Jets Pro Bowl receiver Al Toon, to help fill the void.
The other side of the ball is another story, however, as new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will try to turn around a unit that was burned for 41 and 36 points and big play after big play in its last two playoff losses.
Spagnuolo takes over for Gregg Williams, who left the team in January to join the St. Louis Rams and was later suspended indefinitely by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for running the pay-for-performance scheme the league said the Saints were involved in from 2009-11.
The Saints brought in three high-profile free agents in defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, who is regarded as one of the league’s top run-stoppers, and linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne.
Lofton is expected to start in the middle for Vilma, who’s still recovering from three knee surgeries since November and is also embroiled in a defamation lawsuit he filed against Goodell after being suspended for the season for his role in the bounty scandal.
Lofton and Hawthorne, the projected starter on the weak side, are expected to give the Saints the playmakers they’ve lacked at linebacker for years.
The only key loss for the Saints on defense was cornerback Tracy Porter, one of the heroes of their run to a Super Bowl victory in 2009. The Port Allen native is now with the Denver Broncos and his spot in the starting lineup is expected to be taken by former first-round draft pick Patrick Robinson.
Vitt said the defensive upgrades will make it a tougher team to make over the next 51/2 weeks.
“We’ve won 41 games over three years and 14 games a year ago, so it’s already a tough team to make,” he said. “I think our personnel people have done an outstanding job with the acquisition of talent that we’ve brought in here with Lofton, Hawthorne and Bunkley. This is going to be a tough team to make, and it should be.”
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