Saints set sights on rebound season in 2013

New Orleans Saints' Roman Harper (41) and Will Herring are seen on the bench during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
New Orleans Saints' Roman Harper (41) and Will Herring are seen on the bench during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

METAIRIE — Less than 24 hours after losing their chance to finish a frustrating and disappointing season with a break-even record, the New Orleans Saints quickly put 2012 to rest Monday.

As they said their goodbyes and had exit meetings with position coaches as well as a final team meeting with interim coach Joe Vitt, New Year’s Day couldn’t come fast enough for the Saints.

Soon, suspended coach Sean Payton will return to the team, and the 7-9 season that ended their streak of three consecutive playoff appearances will be forgotten — if it isn’t already.

In fact, Vitt said he was confident the Saints will be able to rebound sooner rather than later and quickly return to the form they showed in winning 41 games, counting the playoffs, from 2009-11.

“Absolutely,” he said when asked if they could be back in the playoff hunt next year. “That’s why we wake up every morning and come to work here. The standards are high, the goals are high, the expectancy level is high.

“There is not a player or a coach or anybody that works in our building that is going to sleep easy tonight on 7-9,” Vitt said. “It’s a great motivational tool for the offseason. That’s what this organization is about … it’s what these core players we have here are all about.”

At the same time, Vitt said the Saints won’t sit around and wallow in self-pity after a tumultuous season following a bounty scandal that cost Payton the entire season and General Manager Mickey Loomis eight games.

Vitt was also suspended for the first six games, and the Saints got off to an 0-4 start. They rebounded somewhat to go 7-4 before closing the season with a 44-38 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

While it was an unmerciful ending, Vitt made sure the players took something away from the season.

“The last thing I told this team was that I loved them,” he said. “I have more respect for them now than I’ve ever had. I’ve got more respect for this coaching staff right now than I’ve ever had, and they’re my friends.

“We can whine and sit here in self-pity and talk about coulda, shoulda, woulda, or we can try to get this thing behind us as soon as we can and move on to the business of getting better,” Vitt said. “That’s what our players want to do. That’s what our coaches want to do. That’s what Sean would demand. That’s what we’re going to do.”

While Payton is scheduled to be reinstated after Super Bowl XLVII, which will be played Feb. 3 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Vitt said the Saints won’t waste any time in moving forward with staff meetings on Tuesday.

“We’re always looking to do scheme evaluations of other teams and what we can do to upgrade our scheme,” he said. “Right now, it’s our scheme evaluation and we’re evaluating our players right after that. We’re going to take a hard look at what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and get better at what we’re doing.”

This season, Vitt said the Saints didn’t do the things that teams need to do to win consistently enough — specifically running the ball and stopping the run and being good at third-down conversions and getting off the field on third down.

“When we did those things, we played pretty good football,” he said. “You group into that the ability to protect the quarterback, pressure the opposing quarterback and then big plays.

“When we adhere to those things we’ve been competitive and have been able to win. When we break those laws, we lose games.”

The Saints will certainly take a long hard look at a defense that shattered a dubious NFL single-season yardage record after allowing 7,042 yards — breaking the old mark of 6,793 yards by the 1981 Baltimore Colts.

Vitt, who also serves as assistant head coach and linebackers coach, said it’s too early to talk about any changes on defense or whether there would be an extreme makeover on that side of the ball.

“Extreme makeover — I don’t know about that,” he said. “I really don’t, but that’s why we’re in the evaluation process now. We’ll make sure that we’re putting the right players in the right positions to make plays.

“We’ll match the proper calls with personnel groupings and do a hard evaluation of ourselves, that’s only fair.”

Vitt said it would be easy to blame their 7-9 record on the bounty scandal and the myriad distractions, but said there are “a million excuses for losing.”

“It is what it is,” he said. “Was it a challenge? It was a challenge.

We’re not going to use that as an excuse. We are what we are, we’re 7-9 right now because of the things that we did between the white lines.”

Many of the players echoed those thoughts as they packed up Monday and prepared for a 31/2-month vacation — one that came a lot earlier than usual.

“It’s not your goal going into a season to finish like this,” tackle Zach Strief said. “It’s not your intent to be cleaning your locker out on New Year’s Eve.

“Obviously, this is not the season we wanted or intended, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t things we could take from it.

“If you don’t, you’re wasting the opportunity. You’re kind of wasting the chance to learn and grow and be better from it.”