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Unbowed: New Orleans and Its Saints Refuse to Give In

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A story of modern day rebellion in the NFL

Photo: Derick E. Hingle

 

The heavy hand of the NFL as wielded by its modern-day potentate, Roger Goodell, has come down hard on the Saints. By now we all know the story weaved by the media and its shadows on the cave wall are becoming almost mythically medieval: a rogue mastermind coach, Gregg Williams, brought in by a passionate but pure franchise that would secretly sell its soul for a silver trophy, perverts the very nature of an austere game and the spirit of a city by exhorting his defensive army to hurt, maim and destroy. Meanwhile, supposedly, the head coach, the general manager and the sainted team leader stand by and let it happen so they too can soak in the winnings and glory. And the fans? Well, a simmering resentment outside the New Orleans region to what was apparently considered haughtiness, or the local penchant for considering itself special, on the national level has been given permission to roam free without recrimination at will. That is the tale as told. All would seem lost. New Orleans has been here before.

But the NFL has a problem: the team seemed most apt for persecution and exemplification–small market, not one of the founding or elite teams (for example, the Bears, Packers, Giants or Cowboys), one with heretofore largely unspoken enemies both in-league and in the national fan base for the style, length and magnitude of its recent successes–may actually be the team also most apt to defy and overcome it. The NFL faces a situation in which its almighty punishment could very well come to naught as it may not truly have “punished” the Saints if the team wins again this year. So far the Saints, led by Sean Payton in exile and Mickey Loomis now appearing in “Bad Kirk” mode, do not look like they have any quit or remorse in them. Faced with losing its head coach, the Saints, with Payton and Loomis deftly performing shuttle diplomacy which few if any could do, leapfrogged over the process by attempting to secure Hall of Fame icon Bill Parcells to assume the team’s captaincy. Faced with losing a past Pro Bowl middle linebacker and the defense’s play caller, Jon Vilma, due to suspension stemming from the scandal, the team quickly brought in three new starting quality linebackers: Curtis Lofton, Chris Chamberlain and David Hawthorne, and Lofton in particular is ideally suited for taking over for Vilma. And rather than meekly accepting his suspension in the face of a media-borne firestorm, Payton appealed, thereby gaining a few extra crucial days to plan, marshal his assets and rally the team leaders who will have to manage things in his stead. Drew Brees, ever the media darling (justifiably), for once took a tack that was not what the NFL and SportsCenter neither expected nor desired, stating by Twitter, “Sean Payton is a great man, coach and mentor. The best there is.”

And then there are the New Orleans Saints fans. Who can say how the NFL expected the bounty accusations to go over locally, but what it has done is given New Orleanians yet another purpose to thrive on, to breathe fire upon, to gather en masse and remonstrate upon. New Orleanians, together, regardless of background or origin, on a mission, is something to fear if one is the object of that mission. There is something about living on a city-island that isn’t supposed to have lasted that gives its inhabitants a sense of invincibility and a love for proving it to be so.  Uniforms in the form of t-shirts were quickly printed, distributed and brandished after the penalties were handed down. There is a legitimate hope that a home Super Bowl could come to fruition. A people who have been tying their identity to a team’s image for years has now felt personally rebuked by what it considers to be an unfair assessment of the team and by extension, themselves. If–if–things work out, starting with signing the still outrageously unsigned Brees, and if the team starts winning early in 2012, the NFL will have a monster on its hands.

And then there is the question of the fairness of that assessment, an issue which could fill tomes. Teams such as the New York Giants (knocking out five quarterbacks in seven games in 2010), the Green Bay Packers (knocking out Jay Cutler on their way to winning a championship, and note that the NFL itself pays hefty bonuses for playoff wins to all players), and the San Francisco 49ers (who, unlike the Saints, did level a game-changing injury when Patrick Willis concussed Pierre Thomas into a key fumble and ended his day in the process), and others, could all be examined and the Saints as a factual matter could likely come out appearing fairly banal in comparison. And the role of Tom Benson, either as the responsible owner potentially having final calls while overseeing the organization throughout these events, or in terms of his efforts in recovering from the penalties, is certainly open for debate and possible criticism. Ultimately, the NFL has protected themselves in future lawsuits about brain injuries and possibly ensured that defensive coaches and players will be too intimidated to talk about taking out opposing players, and especially quarterbacks. But what they have not done and can never do is break a city’s spirit.

-PAUL WEGMANN