METAIRIE, La. — For seven weeks, Joe Vitt had to find ways to handle being away from football and the New Orleans Saints.
He spoke to the football team at Towson University, his alma mater.
He worked with the Semper Fi Fund and the Wounded Warriors.
He talked to flood victims in Laplace.
None of it, he said, filled the void.
The 59-year-old man who is in his 34th year as a coach couldn’t regain what the time he lost, the experiences he missed out on.
“I stayed as busy as I could for as long as I could,” Vitt said Monday, his first day back from suspension, “but I know I looked at my watch and my calendar a lot.”
Vitt’s only connection to the players and coaches he has been around since 2006 came on Oct. 7, when he attended the Saints’ home game against San Diego to watch as Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas’ long-time NFL record for consecutive games with a passing touchdown.
He briefly spoke to Sean Payton, he said, and sat with general manager Mickey Loomis in owner Tom Benson’s luxury suite.
And that was it until the he surprised the team Sunday afternoon after its 35-28 win over Tampa Bay in Florida. He met the team for its ride home, his first meeting with the players and coaches he guided through the toughest offseason in franchise history before his suspension began.
“Last time I saw them was the Sunday night before our opener against Washington for our captain’s dinner,” Vitt said. “I haven’t seen them since. I was glad to be back with them and glad to be back in the hunt.”
“It was pretty surprising,” receiver Lance Moore said. “You really don’t think in a situation like that that he’s going to be waiting there for us. It was awesome to see him. I can’t really imagine what he has been going through the last (seven) weeks being away and not being able to have any contact with guys.”
But while he was away, he didn’t completely shut himself off what was going on. He knows of the 0-4 start and he knows of the subsequent two-game win streak. And he credits his six-game successor for getting the Saints through the early season difficulties.
“I think Aaron Kromer did a phenomenal job of keeping this team together through some tough times,” Vitt said. “He has kept our staff together. We had a little bit of a rocky start and you never know how a season is going to go because every season takes on a life of its own but he has kept it together. He has kept our team together.
“Boy, our hats are off to Aaron.”
Yet, now that Kromer goes back to being just the offensive line coach and run game coordinator, both said nothing changes.
“It’s the same message,” Kromer said. “Joe does a great job and everybody in the organization knows Joe Vitt is a great coach and a great person. We keep saying it over and over. I know there’s one person that comes in here and talks on the microphone but Joe Vitt and I and Sean Payton all have the same message.”
The man who may benefit the most from Vitt’s return could be defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
New Orleans’ defense ranks last in the NFL in yards per game, 31st in rushing yard given up per game and 30th in passing yards allowed. Vitt will add another person for Spagnuolo to bounce ideas off of, using his 34 years in the NFL as a veritable encyclopedia of problem-fixing solutions.
“It means a lot to me,” Spagnuolo said. “Joe has been here for so long and brings such great energy. … We’re starting to add hopefully instead of delete people and personalities and what we need to help get us through the next wave of tough NFL football.”
Vitt knows he’s not a “miracle worker,” he said.
He will do everything he can, however, to help rectify the problems on defense and it began Sunday night, when he began meeting with everyone with a role at the Saints facility.
More than ever, he was ready to return to his daily routine. Just watching games from afar was hard enough.
“I agonized,” Vitt said. “It’s hard to go through. I’ve been with these guys for 7 years. I care very deeply, as Sean does, for this football team and when you’re not there on game – win or lose – to be with guys that you respect and you love, it was a challenge.”