The Saints still need to find a replacement for Joe Vitt during Vitt's six-game suspension. (Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE)
When Sean Payton's suspension begins on April 16, Joe Vitt will take over the reins of the New Orleans Saints. That is, at least, until Vitt's own six-game suspension kicks in following the Saints' final preseason game.
The team announced Thursday that Vitt would serve as acting head coach in Payton's absence from April 16 through the preseason, then again from Week 7 until the end of the year. Vitt has to sit out six games for his role in the Saints' bounty program, which led NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to sideline Payton for the entire season.
The Saints were rumored to have been flirting with Bill Parcells as a possible Payton substitute, but will stay in-house instead. Per a statement released by the Saints:
“This is about our program, and the continued success of our program,” said Saints Owner Tom Benson. “Joe has been part of building our success along with our Head Coach Sean Payton and our General Manager Mickey Loomis. We are looking forward to the start of the offseason program, the NFL Draft, our minicamps and training camp. We are looking forward to the start of our season, as I know that all of our fans are and we are looking forward to competing and winning a championship right here in our own city, in our own stadium this year.”
Vitt served as acting head coach while Payton was unable to patrol the sidelines after suffering a serious leg injury in 2011. He was considered the leading candidate for this temporary promotion, though offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., offensive line coach Aaron Kromer and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo were all in the mix. Spagnuolo has head-coaching experience -- he was let go by the Rams after posting a 10-38 record from 2009-11.
While every step forward helps the Saints try to move past the bounty scandal, which continues to linger as the players allegedly involved await their fates, the decision to rely on Vitt means even more uncertainty lies ahead.
General manager Mickey Loomis, who is suspended for New Orleans' first eight regular-season games, said Wednesday that the team would not decide who would replace Vitt until training camp. While that gives Vitt the next four-plus months to help put the Saints back on track, it also means the team will have to deal with another major change at the start of the regular season, when a second interim coach assumes the helm.
It will be interesting to see how the Saints' schedule falls, once the NFL releases its weekly slate -- something that's expected to occur next week.
In addition to playing each of its division foes twice each, the Saints also drew road games against the Packers, Giants, Broncos, Cowboys and Raiders, plus home contests against the Eagles, Redskins, 49ers, Chiefs and Chargers. There aren't a lot of gimmes in there, but a front-loaded schedule would make life even more difficult for the in-flux franchise.
Vitt has 11 games as an NFL head coach under his belt. He posted a 4-7 record for the Rams in 2005 while Mike Martz dealt with a health condition. Both Vitt and Martz were let go during the subsequent offseason, and Vitt jumped on to the New Orleans staff.