Loomis has high expectations for Saints with suspension nearing
This August has basically been business as usual for New Orleans Saints general manager Mickey Loomis -- long training camp days full of practices and meetings, hoping for no key injuries through dull preseason games, studying players as he and his staff prepare for roster cutdowns. In short, getting the Saints ready to defend their NFC South title in a year in which Super Bowl XLVII is in the Saints' home dome.
September, however, will be a departure from the norm for Loomis. That's when the eight-game suspension for his alleged role in the Saints' alleged bounty system kicks in. He must exit team offices after Aug. 30, the team's final preseason game, and have no contact with Saints staff members, coaches or players until he returns after the Nov. 5 game against Philadelphia. On top of that, head coach Sean Payton is suspended for the entire year.
While obviously not happy about the situation, Loomis is not overly concerned about the impact his impending absence might have on the team.
"In terms of timing, the hay will be in the barn on the roster, contract negotiations and the coaching staff decision on who will fill Joe Vitt's role [as interim head coach during Vitt's own six-game suspension]," Loomis said, without tipping his hand as to who the interim coach will be during Vitt's absence.
"I have a lot of confidence in our coaching and personnel staff here," he added. "We have a pretty good system in place and a lot of trust. I'm not overly worried. I expect they'll be able to handle anything that comes up."
Loomis has been the Saints' executive vice president and GM since 2002. He's already been with the team in tough times -- namely the 3-13 2005 season in which the team dealt with the immense difficulties caused by Hurricane Katrina. But in the wake of that season, Loomis put together the foundation of what has become one of the most stable franchises in the league, including the hiring of Payton as head coach and the signing of Drew Brees in free agency.
Loomis was named NFL Executive of the Year in 2006 for those efforts, and saw the work validated with 2009's magical Super Bowl run. The Saints have won more regular season and playoff games (41) than any other NFL team over the past three seasons.
Today, Loomis finds comfort knowing the stability he helped establish will get the Saints through this latest adversity. He'll look to director of pro scouting Ryan Pace, director of college scouting Rick Reiprish and director of football administration Khai Harley -- all experienced members of the front office -- to handle things in his absence.
What the Saints will miss most are intangibles that Loomis brings in terms of leadership, motivation and setting the tone for the organization, but he feels the team will overcome that.
"Everything of the offseason aside, we're coming off 13-3 and a division title, we have good players, good leadership, an experienced group, " Loomis said. "If it were a normal year, the talk would be that we're going to be a competitive team and in contention for our division title and a possible playoff run. We'll miss Sean. We'll miss [Jonathan] Vilma, (suspended for the entire season), and Will Smith, (suspended for four games).
"People want to interject the offseason and speculate. But whether it's Sean, Joe, me, the players not here for various periods, we've still got a good team," Loomis continued. "That hasn't changed. Like all teams, we have to stay away from injuries. We still have to go out and win. But I feel good about where we're at and nothing in training camp or preseason is saying we're not a good team."
Loomis took care of the biggest responsibility on his plate before his suspension arrives, signing Brees to a five-year, $100 million deal, meaning the leader of the Saints' top-ranked offense is happy and not distracted, and most of his huddlemates also are intact. Brees and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael know what Payton would want them to do in any offensive situation, putting the Saints in better position to play without their head coach than most teams. On defense, Loomis was able to make key additions in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, linebackers Curtis Lofton (who will play in place of Vilma this year) and David Hawthorne and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley.
He believes each unit will be bolstered by breakout performances from 2011 rookies -- running back Mark Ingram and defensive lineman Cameron Jordan. "We traded this year's first-rounder to get Ingram last year, so we look at him as this year's No. 1, and he looks good. We expect he and Cam Jordan to take a big step forward," Loomis said.
Loomis is especially pleased at how effectively Vitt has worked in relief of Payton. "Sean is a fantastic coach. I think he's the best coach in the league," Loomis said. "Joe Vitt has done a superb job with our team. He and our leadership have done a superb job of carrying on. Joe was one of Sean's first hires and he has been involved in every football decision since '06. He has a strong feel on how Sean would react to any situation. Everyone here thinks, 'how would Sean handle this?' -- it's always in the back of our coaching staff's and players's minds."
What is in the front of the minds of everyone in the Saints organization is a strong desire to prove they can overcome the adversity brought by the bounty scandal. Loomis did not want to comment on the fact that there is clearly a giant chip on everyone's shoulders in New Orleans, perhaps akin to the underdog role the city and team took on after Katrina, which translated into even more energy than usual in the loud and raucous Superdome. Pity the Redskins, who visit New Orleans in the regular season opener, and other teams that follow. Silent counts at the line of scrimmage and ear plugs will be mandatory.
In any event, Loomis is definitely happy that his lightning-rod offseason is nearly over. Has an NFL exec ever had a more eventful offseason?
Beside the huge publicity generated by the bounty issues, Loomis also had to deal with the claim that he had installed a wiretapping system in the opposing coaches' booth at the Superdome ("absolutely false," he said). The Louisiana State Police agreed with Loomis and the Saints, and said this week that they found no evidence of such a system. Then there was the very public airing of the Brees negotiations, which Loomis called "business as usual. Contracts for good players are never an easy negotiation, and the intense media attention was because of who Drew is."
"I was never fearful we wouldn't come to an agreement," he said. "He wanted to be with the Saints for the rest of his career and we felt the same way, so it was going to get done. I was definitely happy and relieved, and so was Drew once it was behind us. He's the most important player in franchise history and the contract reflects it. He's just got to keep doing what he's been doing and we'll be fine."
On top of all his Saints activities, Loomis took over as head of basketball operations for the NBA's New Orleans Hornets when Saints owner Tom Benson bought the team in April. Should he choose to do so, Loomis will be able to work out of the Hornets' offices during the nine weeks (including the bye) that he is away from the Saints.
"I am involved with the NBA and the Hornets but not in the day-to-day," Loomis said. "I'm enjoying it. The head coach [Monty Williams] and the GM [Dell Demps] report to me. They are two good guys that I like. I'm going to spend part of my time away from the Saints just educating myself in the nuances of the NBA and how to operate within their Collective Bargaining Agreement.
"But number one -- I want to spend good time with my wife and children. I also want to become more physically fit. I want to be productive work-wise and find ways to get better as a GM. I'll watch a lot of NFL and college games and pay close attention to our team. I expect to come back full of ideas on how to do things better."
When I saw Loomis at the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony recently, I told him that I believed the Saints were going to repeat as division champs and return to the playoffs with 11-plus wins, to the surprise of any NFL observers who believe they are down and out. He gave me a smile and simply said "I sure hope so."
The Saints are sure to be one of the major stories to follow this NFL season --perhaps more than Peyton Manning's return in Denver and the Jets' drama with Tebowmania. What would be more fitting than for the Saints to end their tumultuous year with another Super Bowl appearance? Only this time, it would be as the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
"It would be awesome and everyone in our building knows that, but we don't spend a lot of time thinking about it," Loomis said. "It's not any more motivation for our team. Every team is dying to be in the Super Bowl. But if we were able to do that, it would be great and something unique that no one else can claim."
Unique. Just like the 2012 Saints, and the year their GM has endured.