NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Joe Vitt coached to the very last minute, sprinting down the field and screaming for a timeout as his team moved into scoring territory.
Meaningless preseason game? Hardly. The New Orleans Saints' interim coach gave his team everything he had in a 10-6 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night. It may have been meaningless to most, but it was full of import for Vitt, who now starts a six-week suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty scandal.
"I just told the guys it's been my honor and my pleasure and it really has been," Vitt said. " ... The only person who's dreading this more than anybody is my wife."
Vitt believes he delivers the Saints to their Sept. 9 opener against the Washington Redskins in the best shape possible. Not only are they as healthy as any Saints team he can remember, every player is on the same page following a tumultuous offseason that's brought scandal and storms and every kind of distraction imaginable.
"I'm proud of the way they went through OTAs," Vitt said. "I'm proud of the way they went through training camp. I'm proud of the way they stuck together. And this week, we got displaced yet again and we had not one man late for a meeting. Everybody came together here and got the work done that we had to get done."
That showed against the Titans. Vitt scratched 26 players, and the reserves left on the field outplayed Tennessee, which held out a few stars but played most of the regulars along with quarterback Jake Locker.
Also taking on a larger role in the game was Aaron Kromer, the next interim coach in line. He'll be New Orleans' field leader for six games and Vitt said his role against the Titans expanded quite a bit and included game management issues like replay challenges.
Though coach Sean Payton has been gone since the spring when he began serving his one-year suspension, Vitt doesn't feel the coaches have deviated from his plan one bit.
"This coaching staff has been like a board of directors," Vitt said.
Now it's Kromer's turn to take over as chairman. But first, the Saints will return home Friday and check in on their families and homes after Isaac caused flooding and damage in Louisiana. They'll have Saturday and Sunday off before gathering for a meeting Sunday night that will serve as the official start of the regular season.
Rather than rip the team apart, Brees says the situation has only made it stronger. The Saints played five preseason games this year, something that usually drives players nuts. But in retrospect Brees believes pulling the team together so early helped settle everything for the players.
"I guess in spite of everything that's going on, it was probably nice to come to camp early and hunker down and just focus on football," Brees said. "For a lot of us, we just want to get out on the field as quickly as possible. I've really watched the team come together over the last six weeks through some pretty interesting circumstances, especially as of late."
http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL.