The 2012 NFL preseason gets underway when the annual Hall of Fame Game returns to the schedule this weekend following a one-year hiatus.
The New Orleans Saints probably can't wait to officially turn the page.
When the defending NFC South champions take the field at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio for Sunday's matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, they'll be doing so without the services of both head coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Each were suspended for the entire 2012 campaign by league Commissioner Roger Goodell due to their knowledge and involvement of the Saints' notorious "pay-for-performance" system orchestrated by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, with the controversial decision capping an offseason filled with turmoil and upheaval for the team.
Acting head coach Joe Vitt and defensive end Will Smith were also handed big penalties for their role in the program, with Vitt sacked with a six-game suspension and Smith to sit out the first four regular-season contests. Both are eligible to participate in the entire preseason, however, and will be part of the Saints' contingent for this game.
New Orleans' tumultuous offseason also contained a lengthy contract impasse between the front office and star quarterback Drew Brees, but those issues were resolved when the club signed the record-setting triggerman to a massive five-year, $100 million deal just prior to the start of training camp.
"Just to get back to playing football after what's gone on, I think it's a sanctuary for us," linebacker Scott Shanle remarked.
Brees and the first-team offense are slated to get in some work, though journeyman Luke McCown and 2011 practice-squad member Sean Canfield will likely get the majority of the snaps under center when the Saints have the ball.
The game will provide an opportunity for New Orleans fans to catch a first glimpse at a refurbished defense that will no longer have Williams making the calls from the sidelines or Vilma barking out signals on the field. The unit also lost three starters from last year's group, with tackle Aubrayo Franklin, linebacker JoLonn Dunbar and cornerback Tracy Porter all departing via free agency.
Ex-Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo was hired to assume Williams' post as coordinator, with free-agent addition Curtis Lofton stepping into Vilma's spot in the middle. The Saints also brought in veterans Brodrick Bunkley and David Hawthorne as replacements for Franklin and Dunbar, respectively.
The Cardinals entered camp with some important questions of their own that need answering, namely at quarterback. Arizona thought it had that all- important position solved when it traded for Kevin Kolb last summer and gave the former Philadelphia Eagle a long-term contract, but he went just 3-6 and missed a good portion of the 2011 season with injuries, enabling backup John Skelton to make an impression by engineering five wins in his seven starts.
Kolb currently rates as a slight favorite in the battle and will draw the starting assignment on Sunday despite sustaining a minor thigh contusion earlier in the week. Both quarterbacks are expected to play sparingly, however, with rookie sixth-round choice Ryan Lindley and holdover Richard Bartel in line for more extensive time as the two compete for the No. 3 slot on the depth chart.
Arizona does come in rather thin at running back, with returning starter Beanie Wells presently on the physically unable to perform list as he recovers from an offseason knee procedure and 2011 second-round pick Ryan Williams questionable for the game as he continues to make his way back from a torn patella tendon that sidelined him his entire rookie season.
The Saints are projected to be without starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer (groin) and Patrick Robinson (shoulder), which should provide second-year pro Johnny Patrick and offseason pickups Elbert Mack and Marquis Johnson an opportunity to state their case for the open nickel back job.
The Hall of Fame Game, which will be conducted for the 49th time, is one of the signature events of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Enshrinement Festival that takes place this weekend, though last year's contest was postponed as an aftereffect of the NFL labor stoppage. Six new members will be inducted into the institution on Saturday, with cornerback Jack Butler, center Dermontti Dawson, defensive end Chris Doleman, defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, running back Curtis Martin and offensive tackle Willie Roaf making up the 2012 class.
Roaf was a first-round draft choice of New Orleans in 1993 and spent nine years with the Saints, making seven Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams over that span.
This will be the Saints' fifth appearance in the Hall of Fame Game, with the last one coming in 2007. The Cardinals will be playing in Canton for the fourth time overall and first since 1986, when the team lost to New England while still based in St. Louis.
New Orleans dropped a 20-7 decision to Pittsburgh in the 2007 edition and is 1-3 all-time in Hall of Fame Games, while the Cardinals own a 1-1-1 mark in the series.