METAIRIE -- Nothing has changed my opinion of the 2012 New Orleans Saints.
Not the season-long loss of Coach Sean Payton for his role in the Bounty scandal, the in-season absence of GM Mickey Loomis for eight games and acting head coach Joe Vitt for six games, the pending suspensions of MLB Jonathan Vilma and DE Will Smith and Drew Brees' protracted contract negotiations.
None of it.
The Saints are a Final Four-caliber team in the NFC, a team that is capable of winning 11 or 12 games with Brees under center, Steve Spagnuolo running the defense and a ginormous chip on their collective shoulders.
Make no mistake, this team will be highly motivated to prove their detractors and naysayers wrong, and they are plentiful. Believe it or not, far from the worshipful gush of Who Dat Nation, the Saints appear to be the NFL team everybody loves to hate.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing. If Hurricane Katrina taught us anything at all, we learned that good can come from bad.
"What has happened to this football team is unprecedented,'' Vitt told reporters during his offseason program wrapup Wednesday. "Our players know exactly what we are up against. Our coaches know exactly what we are up against. This is going to be a challenge and they know it."
As the Saints say goodbye to an offseason that can best be described as one of the most unique and challenging in franchise history and hello to six weeks of summer vacation, I leave you with ...
10 VIEWS FROM THE OBSERVATION DECK
1. There was less contact between the NFC and AFC squads at this year's Pro Bowl than during the Saints' three-day minicamp. That is meant more as an indictment of the shameful effort put forth by the league's all-stars in Hawaii than the lack of contact at OTAs and minicamp in accordance with the new CBA.
2. Of all the league sanctions against the Saints, the loss of Payton, one of the game's most creative play callers and best motivators, is the most damaging. A close second is the loss of their second round pick in the April draft. That pick could have come in handy to bolster several positions, most notably a pedestrian pass rush.
3. While Payton's loss is potentially crippling, there is strength in numbers and the entire football operations is more than capable of filling the breach. In fact, Spagnuolo's arrival is a tremendous upgrade on defense. He arguably has been the team's most important off-season acquisition, bringing a stabilizing influence and rock-solid principles to that side of the ball.
4. My early bubble: WR Adrian Arrington, WR Devery Henderson, OT Charles Brown, K John Kasay and RB Chris Ivory. And my bubble wouldn't be complete without LB Scott Shanle, who would be hurt if I left him off. This probably is Arrington's last opportunity in New Orleans. In fact, undrafted rookie free agent Chris Givens might be gaining on both Arrington and Henderson, who'll be entering his ninth season. Yes, Brown is a second-round pick (in 2010) but he has shown very little when given an opportunity and needs a good training camp. Hartley will beat out Kasay, Ivory needs to stay healthy and Shanle will probably prove me wrong once again.
5. On paper, Ivory is a keeper but his recurring hamstring problems are a potential liability. And while his willingness to run over would-be tacklers is entertaining, his upright and head-butting running style could lower the boom on a very promising career.
6. Keeping two fullbacks on the 53-man roster may be a luxury the Saints can't afford this season. Jed Collins is the incumbent and special teams contributor Korey Hall could be an unwitting victim of the numbers game (a third QB perhaps or extra LB or DL on the final 53?) when all is said and done.
7. If looks were the only criteria, then Sean Canfield and Luke McCown would be ahead of stand-in No. 1 quarterback Chase Daniel on the depth chart. Brees and Daniel essentially are the same "smurfish'' height but for some reason the understudy played smaller on the practice field this offseason without the leading man. I marvel at what the diminutive Brees does playing among the trees, standing tall in a collapsing pocket, finding his moving target under duress, throwing through tight passing lanes and taking vicious hits time and again. He truly plays BIG! He's the Steve Nash of the NFL.
8. I could make a solid case for any one of three assistants to be named interim head coach when acting head coach Joe Vitt serves his six-game suspension to open the season. Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., O-line coach Aaron Kromer and Spagnuolo would be capable replacements. I think it will go to Carmichael but my choice would be Spagnuolo, who has been THE GUY for the St. Louis Rams. By the time September rolls around, Spags will have been around the team for nearly eight months and should have a good grasp of the big picture.
9. My player to watch in training camp: Converted LB Martez Wilson, the first of two third-round picks in 2011, who is making the switch from linebacker to an edge pass rusher. The big test will come on run downs when he goes head-up against bigger tackles. He has quick feet, good instincts and possesses the ability to drop in pass coverage at 255 pounds.
10. My draft picks to make final 53: DT Akiem Hicks, WR Nick Toon, CB Corey White, OT Marcel Jones.
PREDICTIONS: The Saints will more than double the number of interceptions they had last season (9) and FS Malcolm Jenkins will lead the team with at least 5. He had zero last season as did SS Roman Harper.
WORTH REPEATING: "No ... and no again.'' -- Roman Harper's reply to me when asked if he ever put money into or earned money from the Saints "performance-based'' pool last season. Notice I didn't say "Bounty'' pool.
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