After extenuating circumstances turned him into a mere football coach last season, grizzled defensive assistant Joe Vitt finally is back to coaching football again for the New Orleans Saints.
There’s a huge difference in the two.
Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson explains.
“You cut Joe Vitt up, all you’re going to find is a 1,000 little football coaches coming out,’’ Johnson said between minicamp practices Tuesday. “He loves to teach, He loves to motivate and inspire. He’s not clerical.
“He did a great job with all those things last season. But when you cut him up, he loves to be on the grass, he loves to be in the classroom, he loves to be with his players. Joe Vitt is a classic football coach, a real classic.’’
Truth be told, Vitt did not really coach a down of defensive football last season, sandwiching a season-opening six-game suspension for his role in the bounty scandal around his preseason and in-season duties as interim head coach in the absence of coach Sean Payton.
Those who know Vitt best say he is finished talking about last season, that he no longer wants to be the team’s spin doctor, that he crammed a lifetime of addressing the media into nine forgettable months as “the voice’’ for a troubled organization.
Vitt declined to be interviewed for this story for all the aforementioned reasons.
“After you get back all the people we missed last year, it feels like we were walking one-legged last year,’’ Johnson said. “It was like we were missing pieces to a 1,000-piece puzzle last season. Football is football, but there’s more to it than X’s and O’s. It’s energy, it’s motivation, it’s a culture. It’s all those things that we missed without our good people doing what they do best.’’
No one is happier to have Vitt back in his old role as linebackers coach than Saints first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who’s installing a 3-4 scheme this offseason in Metairie.
“The big thing for me is I have the best assistant coach in football already here this side of Dick LeBeau,’’ Ryan said of Vitt, a veteran of 35 seasons with eight NFL teams. “That’s like getting a first-round pick.’’
Several linebackers said they notice a palpable difference on the field and in the classroom with Vitt now focused solely on his position group.
“I love Joe; he’s a players’ coach,’’ Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “He’s a great motivator. He’s fired up to be back with us, and you can see it in his individual drills. They are some of the toughest I’ve ever gone through. The guys who have been around in the past say I haven’t seen anything yet.’’
“He’s back doing what he loves, coaching ’backers,’’ Saints linebacker David Hawthorne said. “He’s bringing passion back to the room. He’s a guy with great wisdom, and he couldn’t give that knowledge to us as much as he wanted to last year because he had other responsibilities. But he always had one foot in the door to our meeting room. So we’re glad to have him back 100 percent.’’
Saints linebacker Will Herring said players and coaches were pulled in different directions last season for a variety of reasons, making for a wild roller-coaster ride on and off the field.
“There’s a comfort level getting coach Vitt back in the room with us,’’ Herring said. “Last year, he was needed elsewhere. So to have him back is definitely a positive, not only from an X’s and O’s standpoint, but psychologically as well.
“But we also know that we’re not going to automatically win 12, 13 games just because things are returning to normal around here. We have to have a sense or urgency, players and coaches, and we do.’’
Johnson said the return of Payton and Vitt to their normal coaching roles doesn’t guarantee success this coming season, but, “I know our chances are getting better.’’
“This team knows the formula of how to win,’’ Johnson said. “I think our record here shows that. Now what the results are going to be, who in the heck knows in this crazy business. But I feel good about it.’’