Though their general manager, head coach, highest-profile linebacker and signature defensive lineman will miss some or all of the 2012 season thanks to an hit-for-hire scheme, the New Orleans Saints are still swaggering.
And when asked if those absences will have an impact, they're defiant, too.
"Tell me the difference that you see in the way we run things, the way [quarterback] Drew Brees drops back to pass, the plays that we run, the hustle, the tempo on the field," said interim head coach Aaron Kromer, who'll fill in for Sean Payton's intended replacement -- assistant Joe Vitt -- while the latter serves a penalty of his own when the Saints host the Washington Redskins in Sunday's regular-season opener.
"There isn't a difference because we're following what Sean Payton has taught us. It is his program. It is the way he has done it. We've had a lot of success doing it his way. We think it is important that we continue to do that."
Under Payton, who's banned for the entire 2012 campaign for failing to put a stop to the Saints' bounty program overseen by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Saints have had four playoff trips in six seasons -- including a memorable post-Katrina Super Bowl run in 2009 and 13 more regular- season wins plus a playoff triumph last year, before a 36-32 defeat in the final seconds at San Francisco during the Divisional Round of the NFC Playoffs.
"We've established a culture here that everyone has bought into, and when you've established a culture, no matter who's at the top of it, it's always the same," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "The Saints organization is not about Sean Payton. It's not about (general manager) Mickey Loomis. It's not about Joe Vitt or a certain person. The New Orleans Saints have a culture in what we do.
"The pressure is on us, at least internally, to have this be a huge year. I think everyone knows the importance of it and how huge of a deal that would be for us to get that Super Bowl."
Brees returns after one of the most prolific seasons in league history, during which he established new NFL marks with 5,476 passing yards and a 71.2 completion percentage along with a career-best 46 touchdown throws.
A sometimes-messy offseason contract situation was finally ironed out in July, when Brees signed a five-year, $100 million deal.
"I am excited about our team. I am excited about our opportunity," Brees said. "It's really the focus of one week at a time just trying to get a little bit better each time you step on the field. I couldn't be more excited about where we are at and where we are headed."
A similar sentiment can be felt around Redskin Park.
Washington presumably solidified its quarterback situation for the next several seasons with it moved up prior to April's draft - dealing the No. 6 pick, two future first-rounders and a second-rounder to St. Louis - for a shot to make Baylor's Robert Griffin III the second overall pick behind Stanford passer Andrew Luck.
The Redskins have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, during which they've gone a combined 23-41.
To aid their new passer, the Redskins signed free agent wide receiver Pierre Garcon to a five-year, $42.5 million deal and also grabbed fellow wideout Josh Morgan from San Francisco. Tight end Fred Davis, who had 59 receptions and 796 yards in 12 games last season, also steps up in status after the release of veteran Chris Cooley.
"He's still a young kid. He still has a lot to learn," Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said of Griffin. "We still have a lot of weapons we need to put around him, too, but we feel like we have adequate guys around him, a lot of playmakers to where we can definitely make that transition a little bit easier for him."
While the passing options for Griffin seem clear, running back is a little more muddled. Rookie Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, is in the mix along with second-year men Evan Royster and Roy Helu, who combined for 968 yards and two touchdowns last season.
"Last time I checked, they still have us fourth in the NFC East," Griffin said. "And not that we care, but we're going to go out and try to make sure that we're not."
Redskins lead 15-8
Last Meeting: Saints 33, Redskins 30 (Dec. 6, 2009 at Washington) Last Meeting at Site: Redskins 16, Saints 10 (Dec. 17, 2006)
Redskins HC Mike Shanahan vs. Saints: 3-1 Saints HC Aaron Kromer vs. Redskins: 0-0 Shanahan vs. Kromer Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Redskins have left with a victory in each of their last three stops at the Superdome, recording wins in 1994 (38-21), 2001 (40-10) and 2006 (16-10), and the visiting team has come out on top in six of the seven most recent matchups in the series. Shanahan went 3-0 against New Orleans during a 14-year stint as the Denver Broncos' head coach from 1995-2008, with his lone career defeat to the Saints taking place while in charge of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1988.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Washington: 16th overall (336.7 ypg), 25th rushing (100.9 ypg), 14th passing (235.8 ypg), 19th scoring (21.3 ppg)
New Orleans: 1st overall (467.1 ypg), 6th rushing (132.9 ypg), 1st passing (334.2 ypg), 2nd scoring (34.2 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Washington: 13th overall (339.8 ypg), 18th rushing (117.8 ypg), 12th passing (222.1 ypg), 21st scoring (22.9 ppg)
New Orleans: 24th overall (368.4 ypg), 12th rushing (108.6 ypg), 30th passing (259.8 ypg), 13th scoring (21.2 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Washington: -14 (21 takeaways, 35 giveaways) New Orleans: -3 (16 takeaways, 19 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Washington: 41.2 percent (51 possessions, 21 TD, 18 FG) -- 29th overall New Orleans: 58.7 percent (75 possessions, 44 TD, 20 FG) -- 6th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Washington: 43.9 percent (57 possessions, 25 TD, 21 FG) -- 5th overall New Orleans: 59.0 percent (39 possessions, 23 TD, 12 FG) -- 28th overall
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Griffin, and good luck against a New Orleans defense that was no better than middle of the pack last season even with standout linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who'll sit out this entire year for his role in the bounty scandal. Griffin will look downfield to newcomer Morgan (15 receptions, 1 TD in 2011), who saw his final season in San Francisco cut short with a broken leg in Week 5 before heading East in the offseason. On the other side is ex-Colt Garcon, who headed over from Indianapolis after catching 70 balls for 947 yards and six touchdowns in a lost season without Peyton Manning. Also in the fold is veteran speedster Santana Moss, who begins his 12th NFL season after catching 46 passes for 584 yards and scoring four times in 2011. An 858- yard season would get Moss to 10,000 receiving yards for his career. Lining up behind the shifty Griffin will be a smorgasbord of runners, including the rookie Morris and sophomores Helu (640 rushing yards, 49 receptions, 3 total TD) and Royster (328 rushing yards, 10 receptions).
The Saints defense is missing some personnel, including Vilma and end Will Smith, who's also suspended. New Orleans is expected to play more zone coverage to limit big plays and perhaps confuse the young Griffin. Up front, tackle Brodrick Bunkley was signed from Denver and brings his 43 tackles with him. Middle man Curtis Lofton arrived from Atlanta after making 147 tackles last season and should fill in for Vilma. In the backfield, it's corners Jabari Greer (72 tackles, 1 interception) and 2010 first-rounder Patrick Robinson (47 tackles, 4 interceptions) who lead the way.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
Sure, Payton won't be wearing the headset, but the names and numbers who've helped him to the upper echelon of the league's coaches are still there in full force. Brees (5476 passing yards, 46 TD, 14 INT) was the best in the business statistically last season, eclipsing NFL records for passing yards and yardage per game while also approaching Johnny Unitas' long-standing record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass. His pass-catching playmates include re-signed No. 1 receiver Marques Colston (80 receptions, 1143 yards, 8 TD), as well as 52-catch man Lance Moore (8 TD), dynamic running back/receiver Darren Sproles (86 receptions, 7 TD) and ridiculously productive tight end Jimmy Graham (99 catches, 1310 yards, 11 TD). Sproles ran for 603 yards on the ground and will get some help from former first-rounder Mark Ingram, who ran for 474 yards and scored five times as a rookie last year. Pierre Thomas is yet another backfield option after going for 562 yards on the ground and catching 50 balls in 2011.
Defensively, the Redskins are strong up front in their 3-4 alignment that includes nose tackle Barry Cofield (25 tackles, 3 sacks), end Adam Carriker (34 tackles, 5.5 sacks), inside linebacker London Fletcher (166 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) and edge rusher Brian Orakpo (59 tackles, 9 sacks), but the backfield of Hall (90 tackles, 3 INT), cornerback Josh Wilson (62 tackles, 2 INT) and safeties Reed Doughty (88 tackles) and Madieu Williams will get a stiff test.
With Griffin, the Redskins will be one of the league's most exciting teams, but they face a daunting opening-week challenge on the road on a fast track and against one of the league's most prolific offenses. Brees is rarely at a loss for options with the Saints' varied personnel and should probably find something available in most situations. The Redskins would be well-advised to try and limit New Orleans' touches on offense, but it's hard to imagine a scenario where they win a shootout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 34, Redskins 20