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Nothing routine about New Orleans’ season

By Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times –

METAIRIE, La. — The parting instructions of New Orleans Coach Sean Payton — the words he told his staff and players before heading into the abyss of his season-long suspension by the NFL — are memorialized on a movie-screen-sized banner hanging in the Saints’ indoor practice facility.

“Do your job” is the simple directive, the reminder written under a close-up of a glaring Payton on the sideline, his eyes narrowed and his lips pursed.

His team doesn’t always practice inside — the Saints worked out in the stifling midday heat Thursday — but it has embraced the message, even without the photo of its banished and beloved coach watching over it.

The NFL handed down severe penalties in the wake of an alleged pay-to-injure bounty program. The Saints are angry about the unprecedented suspensions that, for various stretches, will leave them without Payton and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma, both suspended for the season; General Manager Mickey Loomis, suspended for eight games; interim coach Joe Vitt (six); and defensive end Will Smith (four).

Quarterback Drew Brees spoke to two reporters Thursday long after his teammates left the practice field. He said he’s bothered that the Saints, once the darlings of the league, are seen by a significant slice of NFL fans as a collection of low-character thugs.

“More than anything, that’s not what we are, and it’s not what we stand for,” Brees said. “So the negative perception does hurt us, because that’s not the way we conduct ourselves. That’s not the environment and the culture we’ve created here.”

It’s the Saints’ position that the NFL lurched to hasty conclusions based on bad information, a premise the league rejects. A recorded speech by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams essentially urging his players to injure their San Francisco opponents did nothing to convince the public the Saints are clean.

New Orleans players insist they were not paid bonuses to inflict injuries. Regardless, Brees and his teammates know that continuing to fight that public-relations battle — at least putting it front and center — is a distracting endeavor with the start of the season roughly a month away.

There’s no doubt whom Saints fans believe. Payton is a martyr to the throngs who pack the bleachers to watch practice. They wear black-and-gold T-shirts reading “Free Sean Payton” or “Bounty or no bounty, we coming.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is their villain.

At the Creole Creamery, an ice cream shop in New Orleans’ Uptown, a homemade sign features a picture of the commissioner’s face and the words “Do not serve this man.” And that might be the mildest of the anti-Goodell messages, most of which are R-rated.

Meanwhile, Saints players intend to pay homage to Payton by leaving an empty seat for him in the meeting room, as well as on the team bus and plane.

“Everybody knows where Coach Payton sits on the bus, and what bus number he rides on,” linebacker Scott Shanle said. “With 90 guys on the roster, a lot of guys haven’t even met Coach Payton, so it’s our job to tell them exactly what the routine will be.”

Then again, nothing is routine about this Saints season. They are the only team in NFL history that will not only have an interim head coach, but also an interim-to-the-interim coach who will stand in when Vitt misses the first six games. That coach has yet to be named, although most insiders believe it will be Aaron Kromer, who’s in charge of the offensive line.

If there’s an unofficial coach, it’s Brees, who last month signed a five-year extension worth a league-high average of $20 million per season. He’s in his sixth year in Payton’s system and has the unwavering respect of his teammates.

“You’ll find time to pull a young guy aside and talk about a certain route or a certain concept, or maybe the expectations,” the quarterback said.

“I try to picture him doing that stuff out here, and in a way I’m trying to fill that role. I just try to think for a moment, ‘What would Sean do?’ I try to be that voice at times.”

The Saints know they cannot afford to stew too long on the notion they have been treated unfairly. They don’t have the luxury to fixate on that, not with the start of the regular season approaching fast.

“My mind is in football mode right now, and I’m sticking to that,” said Vitt, whose suspension doesn’t begin until the week heading into the Sept. 9 opener against Washington.

There’s a widespread belief among Saints players that last season’s team — which lost to San Francisco in a divisional playoff game — was better than the group that won the Super Bowl two years earlier.

Brees thinks that this season’s team has a chance to be better still, even with Payton and Vilma reduced to uninvolved spectators.

“The statistics might not show that,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to go out and throw for 5,500 yards, or set every record again. But I see a lot of areas where we can continue to improve and get better. The thing is, I look at everybody in our division, and I think they’re going to be better this year too. So the challenge is always there.”

Whereas some teams have to manufacture reasons to feel disrespected, the Saints feel wronged by the league and have harnessed that as motivation.

“You’re just putting another chip on our shoulder,” Brees said. “Everybody loves doubters, some people call them haters, but people who talk bad about you or your organization, root against you or whatever.

“We’ve always had that mind-set of ‘We’ve got something to prove.’”

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