METAIRIE, La. — Joe Vitt promised on Tuesday that he wasn’t the Saints interim coach, referring to himself as a substitute teacher at one point.
But that didn’t keep him from spending nearly 25 minutes answering questions that rarely had anything to do with football on the field and the Saints’ upcoming draft.
What he tried to make clear, however, is that the Saints are moving on from the NFL’s investigation, caring little about what those outside of the team’s Metairie facility thinks of them.
“There’s nothing that anybody can say or anybody can accuse us of that I know deep in my heart that it’s not the truth,” Vitt said. “I know how we coach, I know how our players play, I know the togetherness of the organization, the togetherness of our team, how hard we work.”
Vitt began with a three-and-a-half minute monologue, hitting on the bounty scandal and coach Sean Payton’s one-year absence.
But he tried to get across one point in particular, that the Saints may have talked a tough game, but they never crossed the line once the ball was in play.
“No. 1, at no time did any of our players ever cross the white line with the intention of hurting another player,” Vitt said. “Now, that being said, I’m serving a six-game suspension for the spoken word, not the clenched fist.”
When asked to elaborate, Vitt added, “We never taught any of our players, when they crossed the white line, to injure another player.”
Beyond that, Vitt assured those following the team and NFL that he agrees with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in that player safety is of the utmost importance.
Vitt mentioned former Saints player Steve Gleason, who is battling ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, saying that he’s part of the “family,” as well as former Eagles player Kevin Turner, who also has ALS.
“”I share passionately player safety and making this a better league with player safety,” Vitt said. “I want you to know that, so I share the commissioner’s passion for that and I’m on board 100 percent.”
However, Vitt isn’t concerned that the first time one of the Saints’ defensive players lays a vicious hit, they’ll lose the benefit of the doubt from officials, fans and league officers.
“It’s still going to be our responsibility as a football team to physically reduce our opponents’ will to compete,” he said. “Now, we have to understand head-to-head contact, and I understand all of that. But we’re got to play the game at one speed, and we’re going to play to the echo of the whistle and none of that is going to change. It’s not going to change.”
Vitt wasn’t with the Saints from 2002-04 when Saints general manager Mickey Loomis allegedly had an electronic device set up to listen in on opponent’s headsets.
But he said he doesn’t believe the ESPN report, declaring that Loomis has helped many people around the NFL and that no one can question his integrity.
“Anybody that ever wants to question Mickey’s integrity on something like this…,” Vitt said, pausing while gathering his thoughts. “I mean this is juvenile. This is so bad what has been reported. It really is. It’s irresponsible.”
Loomis already is suspended for the first eight games for his involvement in the bounty scandal.
Vitt said his relationship with Loomis goes back to Seattle, when both were with the Seahawks.
Besides, Vitt said to get any competitive advantage from eavesdropping would be virtually impossible.
“It’s ludicrous,” Vitt said. “It’s absolutely ludicrous. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. I’ve never heard of it before. That’s something from Star Wars. When I first heard something about a wire-tap, I thought they were talking about Sammy the Bull Gravano or something.
“I didn’t even know what they were talking about. What are you talking about? This is ludicrous. And then to associate Mickey with that? That’s irresponsible. It’s a shame.”
In Payton’s place
Vitt, in his 34th year as n NFL coach, has spent time as interim once before, guiding St. Louis in that position in 2005.
But he promises that he’s not an interim coach this time, instead, keeping the seat warm for Payton while he sits out a year for his suspension.
“Understand this – I’m not taking Sean Payton’s place,” Vitt said. “I’m like a substitute teacher here. I’m not going to try to take his place. Our program, our beliefs will stay in place.”
When asked if he was surprised the Saints came to him to be the interim coach, he said the organization has never formally called him that.
“I’m the assistant head coach,” Vitt said. “Sean’s not here right now. So I’m taking Sean’s place while he’s not here.”
As for who takes over when Vitt is out serving his six-game suspension, he said that decision will come down the line later. Vitt said the coach who can carry on the team’s personality best in the fall is the one who will get the job.
“This football team that we have now is going to have a new personality, keeping our core beliefs intact, and whoever can best serve those needs will be the guy that gets the job,” Vitt said. “But Mickey and (owner) Mr. (Tom) Benson will make that decision.”
One player missing during the first week-plus of offseason conditioning is quarterback Drew Brees, who hasn’t signed his franchise tag and has hinted that he won’t play unless he has a long-term contract.
To that end, Vitt said he thinks that will come in due time.
“Drew has earned the right to negotiate this contract,” Vitt said. “And he’s negotiating this contract with one of the best guys in the National Football League in Mickey Loomis. Mickey has got to have vision and try to protect our football (team) down the road money-wise.”
He added, “There’s two highly competent people that have great respect for one another that have a common goal. This will get worked out.”
Team isn’t down
One school of thought percolating locally is that the Saints are being “kicked while they’re down.”
Vitt, though, said nothing could be further from the truth.
“Understand one thing: We ain’t down,” Vitt said. “We are not down. We’ve got 41 wins over the last three years and we’ve got a great building full of players. We’ve got a great scouting staff. We’ve got a great administration. We’ve got a great owner. And we are looking forward to starting the season.”
With the exception of receiver Marques Colston, 100 percent of those under contract are attending offseason conditioning, said Vitt, who mentioned that Colston was busy getting his degree.
“Our players are focused, our coaches are focused, our owner is focused, our building is focused,” Vitt said. “We owe it to our fans. Our fans have always been there for us. Now we want the people of New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region to be proud of us. We’re gonna give them our best.”
In spite of the constant allegations weighing on the Saints, the franchise has been able to sign several new players, including three linebackers who could play a large role in reinvigorating the defense.
Vitt said Curtis Lofton will work at middle linebacker, David Hawthorne at weakside and Scott Shanle at strongside. Meanwhile, linebacker Jonathan Casillas re-signed on Tuesday.
“I think these players clearly knew what kind of program they were coming to, that we teach, motivate and inspire,” Vitt said. “And we have strong core beliefs.”