METAIRIE, La. — It’s not that Jonathan Casillas was looking for an excuse Monday morning, less than 24 hours after the Saints’ disappointing 7-9 season came to a close.
But the fact is, he said, Sean Payton’s absence and the taxing storyline of the season – the bounty scandal – took their toll on the Saints.
“You want to say it didn’t,” Casillas said. “Nobody wants to say basically something that has nothing to really to do with on-the-field stuff has an effect on on-the-field stuff. It did. I don’t know how drastic of an effect it had on it, but there was some effect there and there was a whole bunch of combination of things to equal the 7-9 record. It’s tough and all.”
For nearly 10 months, the Saints have now had to deal with blowback and questions about what happened and how the NFL handled not only the investigation, but the punishment of players, coaches and front office personnel.
From Payton’s season-long suspension to the swapping of interim coaches due to Joe Vitt’s six-game absence to the months-long court filings, Casillas and those around the Saints locker room were forced to continually answer questions that they might not have been able to answer.
In many ways, it was taxing.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I wasn’t in the room,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “I wasn’t a part of it. I don’t have a clue. To answer questions about it for an entire offseason and then an entire season is kind of like, oh my gosh. We get it. It’s there. So I know we’ll be excited to kind of let it go.”
Never before had a franchise been hit with so many penalties at the same time by the league. So those who spent time with the Saints this season faced an unprecedented year of trying to find ways to move beyond what had happened.
The players never blamed each other and never blamed coaches. They also never blamed Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner who levied the stiff penalties that, ultimately, played a role in New Orleans’ fall from 13-3 NFC South champion to 7-9 and out of the playoffs.
“If you look at it subjectively and you try to take yourself out of the equation of it and how it affected you, I think they were trying to do what they thought was appropriate,” Strief said. “I don’t know that I agree with it. I probably don’t. But I don’t think that it was a malicious attack. Obviously it affected us and it affected the city. I don’t think that it’s like the boogeyman in the league office.”
Cornerback Jabari Greer, echoing sentiments shared by many of his teammates, said that once the season started and they were on the field, whatever happened off of it wasn’t important.
And instead of falling apart, the team stuck together. That’s what Greer believes the season obituary should be about.
“Seeing that, seeing the response, seeing the integrity of our players through this time was unbelievable just to say I was a part of this, helping find a solution and not (be) a part of the problem, is something that I can have some comfort in at the end of the day,” Greer said.
Interim head coach Joe Vitt, meanwhile, acknowledged that the season was challenging because of the various obstacles presented to the team. Those challenges were not the reason for the first missed postseason since 2008.
“Was it a challenge? It was a challenge,” Vitt said. “That’s not an excuse for letting the ball go over your head. That’s not an excuse for missing tackles. It’s not an excuse for getting lined up properly. It’s not an excuse for protecting the quarterback. It’s all of those things.”
Regardless of what happened in 2012, with Payton back in the fold as soon as Goodell reinstates him, Vitt believes the Saints can get back to what they did the previous three seasons, when they went 41-13 including the playoffs.
“Absolutely. That’s why we wake up every morning and come to work here,” Vitt said. “The standards are high, the goals are high and the expectancy level is high. There is not a player or a coach or anybody that works in our building that is going to sleep easy tonight on 7-9.”