METAIRIE, La. — On Sept. 30, moments after the Saints fell to 0-4 by falling two points short of a win at Green Bay, then-interim head coach Aaron Kromer stood beneath the Lambeau Field stands, defiantly likening the task in front of the team to mountain climbing.
He promised that the team would fight back and would, eventually, climb that mountain, “because the Saints always do things that people don’t expect. It’s part of our nature.”
Seven weeks later, the Saints have found their way back to .500, winning five of the past six games and turning what once looked to be a forgettable season into what could turn out to be something special.
Just don’t ask now-interim head coach Joe Vitt about that mountain.
The curmudgeonly 58-year-old doesn’t want to hear it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Vitt said Monday, exasperation easily detectable in his voice. “We’re 10 games into a season. We’re .500. We’ve got weeks to go. We’ve got miles to go. We’re nowhere near where we need to be. We’re nowhere near where anyone on this team wants to be. That’s why every practice and every meeting and every chance you have to get better is critical. This is a marathon.”
Few outside of the organization felt the Saints could traverse the mine-filled schedule to get to this point.
Besides fans and their unwavering allegiance to the Saints, few believed a team with all the off-the-field troubles and constant coaching changes could possibly be in position to play important November games.
But that’s exactly what New Orleans (5-5) is in position to be doing.
“Maybe to the outside it was shocking because it was such a slow start,” center Brian de la Puente said. “But there was never a doubt in anybody’s mind that it could happen inside this locker room.”
The Saints’ turn-around has been buoyed by its resurgent defense, which has benefitted from the return of Vitt from his six-game suspension and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who came off the physically unable to perform list in October.
In two of the past three weeks, the Saints have held the Eagles and Raiders to 13 and 17 points, respectively, the lowest point-total for New Orleans opponents this season. The combination of Curtis Lofton and Vilma at linebacker is bearing fruit.
“Let’s face it – any defense is better with Jonathan Vilma in there,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “I go back to him and Curtis (Lofton) together because they’ve really functioned really well together. I can see it on the film this morning that they’re interacting as they’re coming out and they’re helping each other with the calls and there’s some checks that need to be made by the Mike linebacker.”
And the offense has come alive with a run game that, for the past three weeks, is averaging 147 yards, nearly double what it was gaining in late October when it ranked dead last in the NFL.
Still, what those involved in the revival come back to is the program that coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis have created, the foundation they’ve set. That includes finding players who put aside personal goals for team goals, Vitt said.
“When you have a locker room full of guys that are like that – there are a lot of guys in this locker room now that have played together for 6½ years, 5 years, 4 years – there’s a true accountability to one another in that locker room,” Vitt said. “When you’re able to get the right people each and every year to go on this journey with, that gives you a good chance.”
De la Puente didn’t believe the players should take sole credit, though.
“Because this organization, this coaching staff, this team – we have a winning tradition that they’ve set here,” de la Puente said. “The foundation is set. It’s good that we’re back on track and back on a winning streak.”