- You've got to wonder just what Sean Payton is thinking.
Deep in his Illinois-born and Bill Parcells-reared heart, does the New Orleans Saints head coach hope that his team will flourish -- or flounder -- in his absence during the 2012 NFL season?
The Saints' boss was shelved for an entire year by Commissioner Roger Goodell in the aftermath of the bounty scandal uncovered during the offseason that claimed New Orleans coaches were complicit with a system of monetary rewards for players making big hits and causing injuries.
A great season under interim coaches Joe Vitt and Aaron Kromer might take some of the luster off Payton's reputation as a dynamic wonder boy, while a mediocre slog through the schedule without him could enhance his aura.
The "problem" for the 48-year-old Payton, who played three "replacement" games with the Chicago Bears during the 1987 players strike, is that the Saints aren't likely to tumble far no matter who's barking out the orders.
Long one of the league's laughingstock franchises, New Orleans has been closer to the gold standard in the six seasons since Payton succeeded Jim Haslett, winning double-digit games four times, 13 games twice and putting together a memorable post-Katrina Super Bowl championship run during the 2009 campaign.
The second of those dozen-plus victory skeins came last season, when the Saints won the NFC's South Division title and scored 45 points in a Wild Card Round rout of the Detroit Lions, before a gut-punch loss to San Francisco in the Divisional Playoffs after the 49ers scored with nine seconds remaining.
And while Payton and also-suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma will not return for 2012, New Orleans does bring back much of the talent that's been around for the bulk of the run to prominence. That's particularly the case on offense, where the Saints scored an eye-popping 547 points -- an average of 34.2 per game -- this past season.
Quarterback Drew Brees led the league in completions (468, NFL record), completion percentage (71.2), passing yards (5476, NFL record), touchdown passes (46) and passing yards per game (342.3, NFL record) last season, and enters 2012 within striking distance of Johnny Unitas' record streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Brees has at least one scoring toss in 42 straight games. Unitas went 47 straight from 1956-60.
The Purdue University product presumably enters the season content with his wallet as well, having signed a five-year deal worth $100 million in July following a few months of back-and-forth posturing between he and the Saints.
"It's been a little surreal just because of the process throughout the offseason and just how challenging an offseason it's been for everyone, obviously everyone within the Saints organization, this city," Brees said. "It's just been a crazy offseason and I think we're all just ready to get back to work and excited that it's all starting [again]. It's hard to believe."
Returning alongside Brees on offense is No. 1 wide receiver Marques Colston, who caught 80 balls for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns in 2011. He's augmented by fellow wideout Lance Moore (80 catches, eight TD), versatile running back Darren Sproles (603 yards rushing, 86 catches) and breakout tight end Jimmy Graham (99 catches, 1,310 yards).
So, summertime nonsense aside, it's not surprising that Kromer, who'll run the team until Vitt returns from his six-game season-opening penalty, is optimistic.
"I'm going to hold this thing over until Joe Vitt gets back. I'm going to hold the fort," Kromer said. "It's important that Drew Brees feels this is Sean Payton's program. This is the way we do things. This is the way we did it in 2009 to win the Super Bowl. This is the way we did it in 2011 to win 14 football games. This is the formula that we have followed to have success. I'm a fill-in for the fill-in."
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the New Orleans Saints, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 13-3 (1st, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to San Francisco in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Joe Vitt (first season with Saints, 4-7 in one season overall) /Aaron Kromer
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Pete Carmichael, Jr. (seventh season, fourth as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Steve Spagnuolo (first season with Saints)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Drew Brees, QB (5746 passing yards, 46 TD, 14 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Roman Harper, SS (95 tackles, 7.5 sacks)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 1st overall (6th rushing, 1st passing), 2nd scoring (34.2 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 24th overall (12th rushing, 30th passing), 13th scoring (21.2 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: LG Ben Grubbs (from Ravens), DT Brodrick Bunkley (from Broncos), MLB Curtis Lofton (from Falcons), WLB David Hawthorne (from Seahawks), QB Luke McCown (from Jaguars), WR Nick Toon (4th Round, Wisconsin), WR Greg Camarillo (from Vikings), TE Daniel Graham (from Titans), DT Remi Ayodele (from Vikings), MLB Barrett Ruud (from Seahawks), CB Elbert Mack (from Buccaneers), CB Marquis Johnson (from Rams)
KEY DEPARTURES: LG Carl Nicks (to Buccaneers), DT Aubrayo Franklin (to Chargers), SLB JoLonn Dunbar (to Rams), MLB Jonathan Vilma (suspended for 2012 season), CB Tracy Porter (to Broncos), WR Robert Meachem (to Chargers), TE John Gilmore (free agent), OG Pat McQuistan (to Cowboys), DT Shaun Rogers (to Giants), DE Jeff Charleston (to Vikings), CB Leigh Torrence (to Jaguars)
QB: As mentioned, Brees (5476 passing yards, 46 TD, 14 INT in 2011) is pretty good and shows no signs of reverting back to the error-prone, injury-plagued passer that washed out of San Diego and was snubbed by Miami before winding up with the Saints in 2006. Since arriving in New Orleans, he's been the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year, the league's Player of the Year (the Bert Bell Award) and a Super Bowl MVP. Brees' backup, Chase Daniel, has thrown precisely eight passes and completed six in two seasons since making the team as an undrafted free agent. Veteran Luke McCown (296 passing yards, 0 TD, 4 INT with Jaguars) entered camp No. 3 on the depth chart.
RB: Sproles gained 603 rushing yards on 87 carries and added 86 receptions for 710 yards while scoring nine times last season. He's not a prototype ball- carrier, but certainly fills an offensive role that 2011 first-round draft pick Mark Ingram (474 rushing yards, 5 TD) hasn't quite yet while battling balky knees. Pierre Thomas is another dual threat in the New Orleans backfield, gaining 562 yards on the ground while also grabbing 50 passes for 425 yards last season. Jed Collins (11 receptions, 2 TD) returns at fullback and is coming off a very good season as a lead blocker.
WR/TE: Colston (80 receptions, 1143 yards, 8 TD), the athletic phenom from Hofstra, re-signed with the Saints during the offseason and will return as Brees' most threatening target at wide receiver. Moore (52 receptions, 8 TD) is an undersized safety valve who benefits from the Saints' pass-to-open-up- the-run offense. Fellow wideout Robert Meachem is gone to San Diego, but Devery Henderson returns and had 32 catches for 503 yards and two touchdowns last year. Graham, the marvel from the University of Miami, had a Rob Gronkowski-like season at tight end with 99 catches, 1,310 receiving yards and 11 scores to earn his first All-Pro recognition.
OL: Left guard Carl Nicks left via free agency in the offseason but was replaced by 310-pounder Ben Grubbs, a Pro Bowl performer in Baltimore a year ago. Right guard Jahri Evans has been named an all-star three straight years and returns after offseason knee surgery. In the middle, Brian De La Puente started 12 games at center in 2011 and is back as well. The tackle spots are occupied by Jermon Bushrod on the left side and Zach Strief on the right, though third-year pro Charles Brown started five games last season and could nudge Strief out of the lineup without a recurrence of the hip injury that sidelined him for part of 2011.
DL: Pressuring the quarterback from the front line was an intermittent challenge for the 2011 Saints, who addressed the need by signing former Denver tackle Brodrick Bunkley (43 tackles) in free agency. He should help take some heat off interior mate Sedrick Ellis (31 tackles), who went from six sacks in 16 games in 2010 to just a half-sack in 15 last season. Rookie third-round pick Akiem Hicks (Regina), a physical specimen at 6-foot-5, 324 pounds, will start his career behind Ellis at left tackle. Right end Will Smith (36 tackles) will spend the season's four games on the shelf with a suspension before he begins trying to surpass his 6 1/2-sack output of last year. Across from him is second-year man Cameron Jordan, who had 31 tackles and a sack in 16 games. Junior Galette (18 tackles), who had 4 1/2 sacks as a situational rusher, will get fill-in time as a starter during Smith's early-season absence.
LB: Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton arrived as a free agent from Atlanta in the offseason and will help fill the void left by Vilma's absence. He had 147 tackles and two interceptions with the Falcons and should be a more-than- adequate substitute. Another free agent brought in is weakside man David Hawthorne, who had 115 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks in his final season with Seattle. The two newcomers have been dogged with injuries during the preseason, however, and are questionable for the start of the regular season with ankle and knee ailments, respectively. Veteran Scott Shanle is back on the strong side and came up with 69 tackles last season.
DB: Starting cornerback Tracy Porter is gone to Denver as a free agent, leaving holdovers Jabari Greer (72 tackles, 1 interception) and 2010 first- round pick Patrick Robinson, who started eight games this past season and had 48 tackles and four interceptions. Both of them have also been dinged up during training camp, which could yield playing time for 2011 third-rounder Johnny Patrick as the new nickel back. Roman Harper (95 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Malcolm Jenkins (77 tackles, 1 sack) return as safeties after combining for 172 tackles last season, though neither came up with an interception. Harper did lead the club in sacks and is a dangerous blitzer, however.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sproles is the first-stringer on both kickoff and punt returns and scored twice in the special teams department last season while averaging an excellent 27.2 yards taking back kicks. Kicker Garrett Hartley missed all of 2011 with a hip injury and will try to retake the job from veteran John Kasay, who was 28-of-34 on field goal attempts last season. Punter Thomas Morstead had 13 kicks inside the 20-yard line and a net average of 43.1 yards in his second year in the league, earning him a lucrative contract extension during the early stages of camp.
PROGNOSIS: There's been upheaval with coaches. There's been contract hemming- and-hawing with Brees. And there have been injury issues with several members of the defense. But none of it changes the fact that the Saints will return all the key ingredients of a 30-plus point-per-game offense, and there's no reason they shouldn't approach the same numbers this season. New Orleans is a solid bet to keep its string of 10-win seasons going, but the Saints will only go as far as the points will take them when they face presumably more- challenging defenses in the postseason. Having the home team play in the Superdome for Super Bowl XLVII may not be a lock, but it's hardly an impossibility.