The New Orleans Saints are set to begin the season with their third-string head coach and without their general manager and two key defensive players.
When they kick off against the Washington Redskins at high noon Sunday, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome could be nearly as electric as it was when it reopened after Hurricane Katrina for the home opener in 2006 and close to what it was for the NFC Championship Game after the 2009 season.
This game doesn’t stack up to those in significance, but boy do the Who Dats need it.
Many Saints fans feel they and their team have been wronged, the suspensions being cruel and unusual punishment for a bounty scandal that included a spurious investigation and explanation from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Even fans that accept the existence of a three-year verboten pay-for-injuring-opponents program, and see the harsh punishments more as justice than persecution, will treat this game as nearly as epic as those other milestones.
Although bitterness and anger might be the preferred fuels for attendees at Sunday’s game — along with the customary libations — catharsis will be a common one as well.
After months of reading, hearing and debating about bounties, suspensions, appeals, lawsuits, and contract negotiations, Saints fans have been yearning for a football game — a real one, not those rip-off exhibitions in August — to restore order to Who Dat Nation.
This opener is one of the most eagerly awaited in Saints history on football terms alone. New Orleans won 13 games last season, easily claimed the NFC South, blistered Detroit in the playoff opener and came within a whisker of winning at San Francisco and bringing the NFC title game back to the Dome.
Drew Brees still leads one of the elite offenses in the NFL and an inconsistent defense has been fortified through free agency. One of the elite organizations of the last half-dozen seasons seems capable of making a championship run.
But … head coach Sean Payton has been banished to Goodell’s version of Elba. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, chosen to be Payton’s fill-in, is in timeout for the first six games, while formerly anonymous but seemingly capable assistant Aaron Kromer guides this team until late October.
General Manager Mickey Loomis is gone for the first half of the season.
Linebacker and former defensive captain Jonathan Vilma might have played his last game as a Saint unless the judicial system says otherwise. Defensive end Will Smith will miss the first four games.
Is this any way to make a Super Bowl run? No one knows because the Saints’ situation is unprecedented.
But this is certain: Saints fans are frothing at the mouth, ready to finally see some meaningful football on Sunday in the Dome, dreaming that somehow 147 days later in the same building Goodell will have to award a second Lombardi Trophy to New Orleans.
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