New Orleans set to host Washington in opener
After an offseason that can be called anything but ordinary, New Orleans Saints interim coach Aaron Kromer said one thing will be the same Sunday.
For Kromer, the Saints offensive line coach/running game coordinator who added the title of interim coach on Monday, the first game of a new season is something special.
“Any time you get to do anything you love,” Kromer said, “that first day back, the first day of first grade, is awfully fun.”
Long removed from his grade-school days, the 45-year-old Kromer will be more like a substitute teacher filling in for suspended coaches Sean Payton and Joe Vitt when the Saints face the Washington Redskins at noon in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
For the players, returning to the field should be like recess after a bounty scandal and an eavesdropping allegation against General Manager Mickey Loomis dominated the talk during the offseason.
Then, the Saints had to call an audible and leave early for their final exhibition game because of Hurricane Isaac, which left many fans in the Gulf Coast region flooded and without electrical power for days.
“It’s been a tumultuous offseason,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who last season set an NFL single-season record with 5,476 passing yards. “It’s been a lot of struggles, a lot of adversity.
“If there’s one thing I know about this community is there’s nothing that can keep us down,” he said. “We find a way to overcome and to fight back.”
And it’s all behind them as far as they’re concerned.
“This is what we’ve worked for all offseason,” said free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was elected a defensive captain by his teammates. “We did a lot of work in (organized team activities) and minicamp and we had a hard training camp, so the guys prepared well.
“Things aren’t that different,” Jenkins said. “Coach Kromer talked a lot about it being the same message, just a different voice.”
As a result, Jenkins said it’s been business as usual.
Despite all the distractions, he said the coaches and players have moved on although they got a pleasant surprise Friday when the four-game suspension of defensive end Will Smith was overturned — allowing him to be activated and play Sunday.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whose season-long suspension was also overturned, was put on the exempt-commissioner permission list Saturday because he’s not ready to play after missing all of the preseason with knee problems.
“Now, everybody is focused on the Redskins,” Jenkins said earlier in the week. “That’s all we can do right now: win our first game. We’ll worry about the rest when it comes.”
The Saints defense is certainly focused on the Redskins and 2011 Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, who, like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, is a threat to throw and run on every play.
At 6 feet, 2 inches and 217 pounds, Griffin is smaller than Newton. But he has the same set of skills, which convinced the Redskins to trade up and select him with the second overall pick of the draft.
“His talent and athletic ability is phenomenal,” Brees said. “I like the guy because he’s a Texas quarterback and we stick together. I admired him afar in his college career, knowing he’s a homegrown Texas boy. I think he carries himself with a lot of confidence.”
Griffin, who will become the first rookie to start at quarterback for the Redskins in a season opener since Norm Snead in 1961, is looking to make the next step after a remarkable college career that saw him pass for 10,366 yards and rush for 2,254 yards at Baylor.
He threw 78 touchdown passes against just 17 interceptions and also ran for 33 scores — accounting for 111 TDs — in just 41 career games.
“He’s a tremendous athlete, but we’re not focused on the Heisman,” said defensive end Junior Galette, who’ll probably spend a lot of time chasing Griffin on Sunday. “We’re focused on getting after him and getting him rattled. We’re just ready to do our job.”
Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, a longtime NFL offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, is excited about what Griffin brings to the table.
“He has done a great job. He is a worker,” Shanahan said. “Even though he is very talented, he spends all the time that he needs to study, prepare and do all of the things that you’re hoping a quarterback would do.”
Oddly enough, Griffin will be making his NFL debut in his parents’ hometown. He’s visited on many occasions and even watched games in the Superdome.
“It will be special for me to have my whole family there and to be able to watch the Griffin name on the back of a jersey in the NFL for the first time,” he said on a conference call this week. “It’ll definitely be a great experience going to the Superdome to play Drew Brees and the Saints in my family’s hometown. We’ll see, but it’s definitely going to be fun.”
He’ll be a good initial test for the Saints and first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s revamped unit.
In addition to a scheme change in which the Saints will rely on more pressure from the front four to allow zone coverage behind it, the Saints are hoping to be better against the run after allowing 5.0 yards per carry in 2011.
“When you get a guy that can really run, it’s important that you contain him and keep him within the realms of the defense where you can corner him and not let him out and run in space,” Kromer said.” You give a guy like that, who’s that fast and elusive, a lot of space, and it’s a problem.”
But the Saints said they are confident in the ability of their new defense to keep Griffin contained and the Redskins offense under control.
“Our potential is unlimited,” Galette said. “Then again, potential is potential right now. We have to actually go out there and make it happen and make a name for ourselves and be one of the top-tier defensive teams in the NFL.
“We have to put it together collectively as a team and make it happen.”
The Saints made several roster moves Saturday. In addition to activating Smith, T Marcel Jones was put on injured reserve because of a knee injury. Also, the contracts of FB Korey Hall and WR Adrian Arrington were terminated, while MLB Barrett Ruud was put on the exempt-commissioner permission list along with Vilma. … The Saints are 16-29 all-time in season openers, but they’ve won six of their last 10. ... Former defensive lineman Jim Wilks will appear before the game at the Saints Hall of Fame Museum at Gate B on the Plaza level of the Superdome, from 10-11:15 a.m. The museum is open free of charge to ticket-holders for three hours before and for 45 minutes after each home game.