METAIRIE, La. — Joe Vitt has said all along that the team he was in charge of in 2012 wasn’t his team, that it was still Sean Payton’s ballclub in spite of the head coach’s year-long suspension.
So it should come as no surprise that with so much to do this offseason, Vitt expects his friend to be at the Saints’ facility about a minute after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reinstates him.
And will Vitt, the man who led the franchise to a 7-9 record under the most-unusual of circumstances, be there with him?
“Probably,” Vitt said. “I don’t have a life.”
What Payton will see on video and what he’ll get in reports from the coaching staff is that the locker room is full of players who kept their heads and didn’t give in to the temptation to throw in the towel after an 0-4 start.
Of those on the final 53-man roster, 11 have never been coached by Payton. But for at least rookie defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, he has been told what to expect.
“From what I’m told I’m going to be coached hard, coached long and learn a lot about the game,” Hicks said. “I look forward to becoming a better player under him.”
Hicks won’t have to get used to a whole lot, though, according to tight end David Thomas, who said the Saints “ran Sean’s program this year.”
Indeed, the team looks forward to becoming a better one under Payton.
In the previous three seasons before Payton’s suspension, the Saints were one of the most consistent and best teams in the NFL. They ran off a 41-13 record, including playoffs, won a Super Bowl and were a defensive stop away from their second NFC championship game in three years.
There’s little question, in other words, that having him back around should provide a boost.
“We’ve said all along he’s an important part of this organization,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “He’s the leader of this organization so you don’t want to lose that guy.”
Added Thomas, “It’ll be nice to have Sean back because Sean is one of the best at what he does. It’ll be exciting to see him and having him back in the building. It’ll be a smooth transition.”
That transition, though, will include having to make decisions in free agency. The Saints have 10 unrestricted free agents, including left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Free agency opens on March 12, about two weeks after the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Equally as important will be how the team figures out what to do with a defense that allowed 7.042 yards, the most ever in NFL history. Vitt said Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, not himself, will decide what to do about improvements.
In other words, Vitt isn’t worried that decisions will have to be made prior to Payton’s return.
“I don’t think so,” Vitt said. “I think the time of the year comes where you’re moving towards the combine and you see exactly what the influx of talent is going to be, who’s available in the free agent market and then doing your own scheme evaluation. Those things, coming out of the combine, is when you make those determinations.”