It's obvious the Saints will greatly miss the on-field leadership and offensive creativity of Sean Payton during his suspension for the bounty scandal that has enveloped his team over the last month. After all, we're talking about a Super Bowl-winning coach who has led his team to the playoffs in four of his six seasons at the helm.
But what impact will the Saints feel from GM Mickey Loomis' eight-game suspension? Make no mistake -- his absence will hurt in many tangible and intangible ways.
Loomis has been New Orleans' executive vice president and general manager since 2002. He was the key figure in the hiring of Payton for his first head coaching position in 2006. Shortly after, he engineered the risky six-year, $60 million deal that brought Drew Brees to town. Both of those moves were franchise altering. He was named NFL Executive of the Year after the 10-6 Saints made it to the NFC Championship Game in that momentous 2006 season. Loomis led the resurrection of a franchise coming off a 3-13 season and the staggering effects of Hurricane Katrina.
By the time his suspension begins after the final preseason game in early September, it would seem that the most important work for Loomis will have been completed. But a GM is more than just a figurehead for an NFL team, and during the first half of the regular season the Saints will be missing one of their major leaders, one who is responsible for the club's entire football operations.
Free agency will have run its course by suspension time, and the Saints' report card looks to be positive so far. Loomis and the team re-signed top wide receiver Marques Colston and added Ben Grubbs as a best-available replacement for All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, who left for Tampa Bay. They made an important signing in middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, who can step in for Jonathan Vilma if he is suspended, as expected, for his alleged role in the bounty scandal. Brodrick Bunkley was added as an excellent run-stopper at defensive tackle.
The team put the franchise tag on Brees and has until July 15 to reach a long-term deal or the five-time Pro Bowler will play under a one-year contract in 2012. This is Loomis' top priority -- to reach a mutually satisfying deal with Brees, who is not happy with the franchise tag and wants top money. Peyton Manning's deal with the Broncos should crystallize the QB market, making the Brees deal very likely to get done before the deadline.
Loomis will coordinate the April draft, where the prospects for adding major help -- especially to a defense that needs it -- aren't great, with the Saints having no picks in the first two rounds. He'll also huddle with owner Tom Benson and presumably Payton (prior to the start of Payton's suspension) to choose an interim head coach from a list that includes Bill Parcells, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.
Like all GMs, Loomis will be in-house to coordinate the free-agent and undrafted player signings post-draft to fill out the roster. He'll be there for all team offseason activities that begin mid-April, including the conditioning program and minicamps/OTAs. He'll oversee contract negotiations for draft choices, training camp operations, preseason games and participate in the easy player cut to 80 on Aug. 28. He'll also give his input on the final roster decisions that will come on Sept. 2. But he'll have to exit the Saints facility before that final cut day.
The effect of Loomis' absence will then be felt immediately as final cuts, practice squad signings, trades and decisions on whether to put injured players on IR will be made. And the first week of the regular season often is a time of musical chairs, as teams look to the waiver wire to shore up perceived weak spots. GMs decide who to bring in for tryouts and which players to claim.
As for who will be taking on Loomis' GM duties during his suspension, we can be sure that Benson won't pull a Jerry Jones and do it himself. He and Loomis have capable and experienced members of the Saints front office who they will ask to fill the void as best they can.
Director of pro scouting Ryan Pace (nine years with the Saints) or director of college scouting Rick Reiprish (eight) -- or both -- will make the football decisions related to roster moves, along with the interim head coach. They are accustomed to closely monitoring the waiver wire for potential pickups, but now the final decisions will rest in their laps. There's an added pressure to making the final call compared to just making recommendations, so they will be unlikely to make any bold moves on their own.
Once the opening day roster is set, they will have to address the week-to-week roster changes that are often forced by injuries. As of now, the trade deadline hits after Week 6 (a possible rule change could move it to after Week 8), and Loomis won't be around unless he appeals and has his suspension reduced. In-season trading of significant players is not common in the NFL due to salary cap implications, Carson Palmer to the Raiders last year notwithstanding. But GMs still hit the phones prior to the trade deadline to try to fill needs or unload problem players. Again, don't expect anything dramatic from the Saints with their GM gone.
Meanwhile, director of football administration Khai Harley (fourth year with the Saints) will expand his normal role of assisting Loomis with salary cap management and contract negotiations. While he will have to step up to take the lead role in these areas without Loomis' input, he also will have to manage the other areas Loomis usually oversees -- the team's trainers and doctors, equipment men, video department, team operations and travel as well as communications.
Conspiracy theorists may believe that Loomis will be on the phone telling his staff what to do during his absence. That's not going to happen unless the league allows some level of communication. It's way too risky, with NFL investigators ready to pounce on any such transgressions. But the league can't stop Loomis from one job duty of an NFL GM after the start of the regular season -- watching a lot of college football and taking notes on future NFL prospects. He just won't be doing it in college stadium press boxes as Saints GM until his reinstatement.
The GM also is generally the principal conduit to the owner, and keeps him updated on a regular basis on what's going on with the team. So Pace, Reiprish and Harley will take on that not always pleasant duty. A good GM such as Loomis learns over time how to manage his owner, and this will be new territory for these other front office men.
Those are the tangible parts of a GM's role during the regular season that will be a challenge for the Saints to handle. It's the intangibles that will be even harder to replace during Loomis' absence.
Loomis and Payton are the two leaders of the football side of the organization, with Loomis the overall football boss. With Payton gone as of next week, pending appeal, Loomis' presence and future absence looms larger. The GM helps set the tone for the team. His presence at practices, on the field before games and in the locker room afterward is important and a motivating factor, as players are reminded that this is the man who will decide their future salaries and have a major say in whether they stay or leave.
The best GMs are visible --talking with coaches and players and encouraging them in the facility dining room, on the field before practice, on the team plane and in the team hotel on the road and at charity functions. The GM usually has relationships with key leaders on the team so he can gauge its pulse, and that dynamic will be absent during the suspension. This can't be replicated with interim leadership.
People skills are critical for a GM, and Loomis has them. During my NFL years and after, I've always known Loomis to be bright, knowledgeable, very personable, fun to be around and positive in nature. Those traits will missed by the organization during the time he is gone. It will be an excruciating time for a competitive guy like him, especially to have to watch his team on TV instead of in person. He can only hope the team is motivated -- as several Saints players already have stated they will be -- to overcome the bounty scandal and in the playoff hunt when he returns from exile. And he'll make sure the Saints never cross the line on NFL bounty rules in the future.
Benson has already said that he is standing by Loomis as well as Payton, and rightfully so. Mistakes and misjudgments were clearly made, and the penalties are severe. But Benson knows Loomis is one of the NFL's top GMs, and recognizes that he has proven his value over the past decade. He knows the challenges that Loomis faced and conquered post-Katrina when the Saints had to operate out of San Antonio in 2005. He appreciates the team's winning ways in recent years after decades of struggles. Above all, there is that shiny Lombardi trophy in the Saints facility that Loomis played a major role in delivering to Benson. That earns a lot of forgiveness, and the team may appreciate Loomis even more after seeing what life is like without him.