Vargas: The party’s back on for all you Who Dats

by ramon antonio vargas

rvargas@theadvocate.com

Associated Press file photo by BILL FEIG -- A New Orleans Saints fan cheers during a game in November at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Associated Press file photo by BILL FEIG -- A New Orleans Saints fan cheers during a game in November at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

On the second-to-last Saints training camp practice open to the public this year, fans in the audience at the team’s training facility in Metairie eagerly spoke about new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s system, the arrivals of rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis, and the return of coach Sean Payton.

They did not, however, want to chat about the bounty scandal, which resulted in Payton’s suspension for all of last season and preceded a frustrating 7-9 campaign. And they did not want to rehash the drama surrounding quarterback Drew Brees’ decision to hold out for a new $100 million contract in the 2012 offseason.

For Who Dats from near and far, this season marks a return to football and concentrating on what happens on the gridiron — not the business off it.

“I’m glad it’s all behind us,” said Myron Ettinger, a native of Mobile, Ala., who drove in from Florida to see his favorite team get ready for the season. “There’s no scandal, Brees is not holding out and Sean is back.”

Ettinger stood among the Saints fans predicting an NFC South title. Others around him predicted at least a wild card.

Some called the city’s second Super Bowl championship outright. No one — at least around Ettinger — dared to say the Saints would be done playing football in December, not with Payton and Brees reunited.

“I think (Payton) is a wonderful coach, and I think that him and Drew Brees together make this team what it is,” said Wendy Parker, who drove three hours from Mississippi on her day off from work and believes Lombardi Trophy No. 2 is in the cards this year. “They do so well together, and I’m so glad Sean Payton is back.”

Parker does have a point.

Since 2006, Payton and Brees have played enormous roles in the Saints’ two NFC championship appearances, their only Super Bowl and five of the franchise’s six postseason wins.

Even so, the Payton-less Saints in 2012 were afflicted with issues they would have struggled with, even without the bounty scandal and even if their coach was around.

The defense couldn’t sack opposing quarterbacks, finishing in a tie for 25th in that category. It couldn’t stop the run, finishing last in rushing yards per game and per attempt. It couldn’t stop the pass, finishing second-to-last in passing yards per game; and it couldn’t stop anyone from scoring, finishing second-to-last in points allowed.

New Orleans also surrendered the most yards in one season in NFL history before canning former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and hiring Ryan.

Furthermore, even though he was separated from Payton, Brees still posted eye-opening numbers — 422 completions, 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns. He attempted a career-high 670 passes but was picked off 19 times — three fewer than his career-most in 2010, when Payton’s voice was coming through on his headset.

The installation of Ryan’s new 3-4 alignment hasn’t been without its mishaps. Who Dats were dismayed when projected starting strongside linebacker Victor Butler went down for the season with a torn ACL during organized team activities and when projected starting left defensive end Kenyon Coleman was lost for the year with a torn pectoral muscle during camp.

Linebackers Martez Wilson and Junior Galette, both candidates to replace Butler, also have dealt with injuries. Plus, centerpiece linebacker Jonathan Vilma had arthroscopic knee surgery.

There could be headaches elsewhere. Notably, the defending division champs Atlanta Falcons this year are joined by Steven Jackson, who rushed for 462 yards and four touchdowns the last four times he faced the Saints with the St. Louis Rams.

Nonetheless, fans are justifiably excited about drafting Vaccaro and signing Lewis to a five-year, $26.3 million deal, moves meant to shore up what had been a sloppy secondary.

It remains to be seen whether Vaccaro, a first-round pick, and Lewis, who led the NFL in pass breakups last year, are the solution. But they both stood out at training camp.

And either way, to Saints fans, talking about a new cornerback and new safety beats stewing on the bounty scandal fallout.

As Dwayne Washington, of Metairie, put it while burning a vacation day at training camp: “When you see the Saints bring in talent like that, from a front office standpoint and even from an ownership standpoint, you see they’re looking to bring back another championship to this city.

“I’m just glad the focus is on the field.”