Senior NFL Columnist

Saints' situation still unsettled, but Brees' presence brings optimism

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Brees' presence soothes the sting of his contract squabble and Bounty-gate. (US Presswire)  
Brees' presence soothes the sting of his contract squabble and Bounty-gate. (US Presswire)  

METAIRIE, La. -- Maybe it was appropriate that a thunderstorm came rolling in Thursday just as the New Orleans Saints were about to open their 2012 training camp, sending a long line of fans away and forcing the Saints into their practice bubble.

After all, hasn't their offseason been one dark cloud coming after another?

The Bountygate scandal that has rocked the foundation of this franchise, sending head coach Sean Payton into a year of exile and elevating his top capo, Joe Vitt, to the rank of head coach -- at least for the time being, but more on that in a bit -- has highlighted an offseason for the Saints that couldn't end faster than a hangover after a night on Bourbon Street.

But while the cloud hid the sun late Thursday afternoon, there was something bright and glowing inside the team's practice bubble that will help make the problems easier to handle, almost making them now an afterthought for those players and coaches still on the field.

All you had to do was see that guy in the No. 9 jersey throwing pinpoint pass after pass, making big play after big play, to know that the New Orleans Saints will again be a team to reckon with in the NFC, head coach or not.

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Drew Brees might have missed all of the offseason work during his contract dispute -- landing a five-year, $100 million contract in the process -- but you would never know it by seeing him Thursday, his first day on the field since the Saints lost to the 49ers in the playoffs last January.

Who needs practice?

"We know it so well, we've done it so long," Brees said. "It's just second nature. It's muscle memory. It's been six months since I threw to these guys in live reps. It doesn't feel like it's been that long."

But this will be a first for Brees -- playing a season in New Orleans without Payton, the offensive wizard who helped put him in a position to be a passing numbers machine and one of the NFL's best.

Payton is arguably the game's best offensive play caller, a risk taker who calls a game like he lives, which is with a swagger and a huge boulder of a chip on his shoulder.

Since Brees missed all of the offseason work without Payton, who is serving a one-year suspension imposed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the bounty scandal, this was the first practice of any kind in New Orleans where he didn't have Payton in his ear.

"That's going to be an adjustment as we go through here," Brees said. "Every little thing -- the start of the meeting. You are used to Sean getting up. Even if he's just running through the schedule. He has a great way of telling us a story to reach a lesson. That's one of his great strengths. You miss that. You can't replace that. Joe Vitt is doing a phenomenal job. He's been here since we've been here. We all know him very well. We know what he expects out of us. As we go along, we'll continue to adjust. But, yeah, it's different."

Said Vitt: "[It was] weird not having Sean here for the minicamps, weird not having Sean here for the OTAs, weird not having Sean here for the draft. That's not going to change."

Vitt, who got his start in the NFL coaching in 1979 with the Baltimore Colts, is a head coach for the second time in his career -- including a short interim stint with the Rams in 2005. And he gets the chance with the backdrop like no other. He's not only the interim coach, he has to deal with things such as players missing the beginning of Thursday's practice so they could testify on behalf of teammate Jonathan Vilma, who is suspended for a year for his role in the bounty scandal and is trying to get that reversed.

Four players -- linebackers Jonathan Casillas and Scott Shanle, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and safety Roman Harper -- all missed the first 45 minutes of practice after testifying for Vilma on the other side of town. Vitt also testified earlier in the day, but he was back in time.

"We knew this was coming," Vitt said. "They were late some. We anticipated that. They got 99 percent of the work they had to get into today."

Vitt, like Payton, has to serve a league suspension. His will be the first six games, but he can coach until then. That leaves open the question as to who will be the interim-interim coach when he does leave. The Saints aren't saying, but the best guess is offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, which would leave coordinators Pete Carmichael Jr. (offense) and Steve Spagnuolo (defense) to run their units.

That means the Saints will have two coaches in a year, and neither is their regular coach, the guy who led them to the only Super Bowl in franchise history. In Vitt, they have a feisty, talk-tough profanity-spewing former college linebacker who always seemed to be a guy to lean on for Payton, but he isn't Payton.

"It's always weird when you don't have a head coach," Saints Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans said. "Guys are taking it pretty good. We're not going to miss a beat. We look at ourselves with [Payton not here] to pick it. They call it. We haul it. They call a play. We run it. On different levels of football, coaches come and coach go. We adjust. We'll be OK."

Carmichael called plays last season when Payton broke his leg in a sideline mishap, so he should be comfortable in that role. But the Saints will miss Payton's ability to install an offense and also to be as daring and creative as he was in the week leading up to the game and again on Sundays.

"It is something that we are going to have to get used to, but last year we kind of went through it whenever Sean Payton went down," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "Pete Carmichael stepped up and he is a great play caller and it got us through a lot of good games. We had a great year with him. There is always going to be a little bit of difference, but I think that everyone is going to step up and everyone is going to do a little bit more to fill that void."

It's still tough to replace Payton. It's a lot easier with a mind like Brees behind center.

The issue might be checks and balances for Brees. Great quarterbacks need somebody to let them know when things aren't right, that they aren't running the show.

Great actors need directors. So that's one question that remains unanswered: Who will keep Brees in check?

Carmichael doesn't have the juice yet, and Vitt is a defensive coach who spent most of his first practice watching that side of the ball. Then again, maybe Brees doesn't need it.

The joke in Indianapolis was that Peyton Manning ran the Colts offense. During practice Thursday, Brees stepped away from a short chat with Vitt. That led to this joke when practice was cut short by 15 minutes:

"Hey, Joe, why did Coach Brees cut practice short?"

They call him "Brees-us" in these parts: Don't dare say a bad thing about him or you will feel the wrath, which I have felt in the past.

There's a reason Saints fans feel that way. It was on display Thursday inside the team's practice bubble.

All the drama, all the offseason missteps and troubles, seemed to fade away with every Brees bullet that hit a receiver in the hands.

Suddenly, it wasn't so dark around here anymore.

Even inside, with a storm outside, it seemed to be sunny again.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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