Vikings linebacker Marvin Mitchell spent his first four NFL seasons in New Orleans. That, he says, was long enough to know the 2012 Saints will be a dangerously angry and talented team as they play their way through the suspensions associated with the bounty scandal that rocked the team this offseason.
"I believe that's a strong team, a strong organization," said Mitchell, who played for the Saints from 2007 to 2010. "Drew Brees is a great leader. To be under that type of guy, teammates respond so well to him. The way he works, he sets the bar so high. And he's not happy [with the suspensions]. I think they'll all respond pretty well."
The punishment handed down from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after a three-year investigation included a year's suspension for coach Sean Payton, eight games for GM Mickey Loomis and six games for assistant head coach Joe Vitt. Vitt was the interim coach during the offseason; now Aaron Kromer is the interim for the interim. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma (season) and defensive end Will Smith (four games) were also suspended, although an appeals panel has temporarily lifted those two punishments.
"The whole thing was very unfair of the commissioner to do," said Mitchell, who wasn't interviewed by the league as part of the investigation. "I'm with the Vikings now, so I really don't have much to say about the details of what happened, other than I think the punishment was very unfair."
NFL analyst Mike Mayock told USA Today that the scandal's impact will be "unprecedented and, on the surface, insurmountable."
Unprecedented? Yes. Insurmountable? No.
Payton's absence is the greatest to overcome. But no team is set up better to overcome the loss of its offensive-minded head coach than the Saints.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. has been working under Payton since he and quarterback Brees arrived in the Big Easy seven years ago. And Carmichael and Brees have been together going back to 2002 when they were with the Chargers.
Payton is one of the league's best game-day play-callers, but Carmichael handled the duties for 10 games last year after Payton broke a leg in a sideline collision with tight end Jimmy Graham.
In a credit to Payton's coaching structure, the Saints never missed his play-calling. They set several NFL records, including first downs (416), total yards (7,474), completions (472) and passing yards (5,347). With Carmichael calling plays, the Saints averaged 476.1 yards per game.
Defensively, the Saints will be fine. Maybe better than fine, considering Steve Spagnuolo replaces Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator. Spagnuolo failed as a head coach in St. Louis, but he's as good a defensive coordinator as there is in the league. For those who might have forgotten, check out what his aggressive game plan for the Giants did to an 18-0 Patriots team in Super Bowl XLII.
As far as intangibles, the Saints have the best thing going in pro sports: disrespect. Pro athletes thrive whenever they feel disrespected, even when the disrespect is nothing but a total fabrication. In this case, the Saints coaching staff won't have to make things up to keep the players' anger stoked.
"I know everybody has their opinion of what happened, or what they think happened with the bounties and all that," Mitchell said. "I don't want to get into all that. I'll just say I don't believe those guys deserved it. We had a tremendous year winning the Super Bowl in 2009. Those guys will be OK. They'll respond well, because they're all great men."