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How will Saints respond? Dominance of '07 Patriots might provide clues

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Now that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has refused to budge on the "Bountygate" suspensions, here's my question: How do the New Orleans Saints respond? I'm not talking about what they think about a historic and humiliating punishment; I'm talking about what they actually do in the wake of it.

Essentially, they have two choices: They can go into the fetal position, or they can pull together and use what just happened as a rallying cry -- proving to critics, moralists and Goodell himself that they don't need bounties or Gregg Williams or "Free Sean Payton" T-shirts to succeed.

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Accurate or not, there's a widespread feeling the Saints played by different rules than others the past few years and enjoyed an unfair advantage until they were caught. Moreover, there's a feeling that the organization was so defiant, so arrogant, so downright out-of-touch that it didn't give a rip what the commissioner or league office said about bounties, head injuries or player safety; it was going to play the way it was going to play, and like it or lump it.

Well, the Saints just lumped it. So now what? Answer: Now they use "Bountygate" as a crutch or as a weapon, and the choice is theirs.

It's not unlike what New England experienced in the wake of Spygate in 2007. The scandal was revealed after their season-opening hammering of the New York Jets, and the penalties were swift and harsh. The Patriots believed they were unfairly accused and vowed to take out their anger on opponents -- essentially adopting an Us-Against-the World approach to the season.

They weren't just angry that they'd been labeled cheaters. They were determined to prove they didn't need any frickin' videotape or sideline videographer to win ballgames. Except this wasn't about winning ballgames anymore; this was about exacting revenge for a crime they didn't believe they committed and restoring a reputation to one of the league's premier franchises.

So it was no longer about beating people. Nope, this was about burying them, and the results speak for themselves: Nobody in the first half of the season came within 17 points, while seven of their first eight victories were by 21 or more.

Included was a 52-7 beatdown of Washington, where the Patriots led 45-0 midway through the fourth quarter when backup quarterback Matt Cassel replaced Tom Brady. Until then, Cassel had thrown 34 career passes, but he threw on three of the first four snaps. Then he scrambled 15 yards for another touchdown and 52-point lead.

When it was over, then-coach Joe Gibbs had suffered the worst loss of his Hall of Fame career.

"What's done is done," wide receiver Santana Moss said afterward. "They showed us how they were, and we had nothing to answer for it."

Of course, that was the point. Three weeks later, it was Buffalo's turn -- with the Bills annihilated 56-10 in a nationally televised game. It marked the fourth time in five starts New England scored 48 or more, and the message was clear: These Patriots had something to prove, and they didn't care who or what stood in their way.

All is fair in love and war and this was war -- with New England on the attack. Only it wasn't so much an offensive as it was a blitzkrieg, with the Patriots winning their first 10 by an average margin of 23.7 points. Brady, who set a league record with 50 touchdown passes that season, said New England's goal was to "kill teams" and "blow them out if we can," and mission accomplished.

The Patriots won their first 18, not losing until Super Bowl XLII.

The Patriots had their coach and general manager to remind them they had been wronged -- or, at least that's how they saw it. The Saints will not. I don't care if it's Bill Parcells, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael or defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo who takes over, the guy most directly affected by the fallout -- Payton -- won't be around to prove himself to opponents or the league or the commissioner.

Some of his players may join him too, though one prominent owner at the NFL meetings in Florida said that he thought only linebacker Jonathan Vilma would wind up getting suspended. Vilma's future is uncertain, but the Saints are prepared for the worst, signing free-agents linebackers Curtis Lofton, Chris Chamberlain and David Hawthorne in the meantime.

Vilma or not, the Saints have a roster laden with talent. Like the Patriots of 2007, they have an elite quarterback. Like the Patriots of 2007, they have offensive weapons galore. Like the Patriots of 2007, they are defending division champions. What they don't have is their head coach, and that's the X-factor in weighing how they respond to what just happened.

"They have the leadership in a guy like Drew Brees," said an NFL personnel director, "so that shouldn't be an issue. He can rally the troops, and they do have a lot of quality players there. My question is: What happens if they hire someone like Parcells and what that does to the coaching staff? Guys might be pissed off and not as eager to do what they were going to do -- which would have an effect. In my mind, they're better off without Parcells than they are with him."

That's another question for another day. The bigger concern is the impact of the commissioner's decision on the Saints for 2012. They have the material to be a Super Bowl contender, and, now, they may have additional motivation to get there.

The choice is theirs.


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