FOXBORO -- We’ve been here before: High-powered NFL team gets enmeshed in scandal and receives massive penalties from the league. Meanwhile, critics doubt their success and ask whether or not it will prevent future glory.
In the wake of a videotaping scandal, the 2007 Patriots spun the negative into a positive, circling the wagons and defining the term “us-against-the-world football” on the way to a the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history, making it to Super Bowl XLII before losing to the Giants.
Following the revelations of a long-standing bounty program, commissioner Roger Goodell hit the Saints hard this past spring, including the suspension of coach Sean Payton for one year. For their part in the bounty program, Payton and Vilma were given yearlong suspensions, while three other players were given bans of their own. In addition, GM Mickey Loomis was suspended eight games and the Saints were fined $500,000 and docked second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
The last time a team received such a stiff penalty from the league was 2007 when Goodell imposed fines of $500,000 on Bill Belichick and $250,000 on the Patriots and took away a first-round draft pick.
On Tuesday, several members of the Saints said they hoped to learn lessons from that New England team that was able to fight through a scandal-plagued season and end up in the Super Bowl. Saints acting head coach Joe Vitt -- who faces a six-game ban of his own, starting with the regular-season opener -- said that 2007 Patriots’ team did a “great job” of handling adversity.
“Let me just say this,” said Vitt. “Number one -- I made this statement [Monday] and Sean (Payton) has made this statement -- that this franchise that we’re going against is the Microsoft of our industry with what they’ve done. Number two – in my era as a coach, Bill Belichick is the coach of my era. He’s the Don Shula, the Bill Walsh of my era. So they’ve had some adversity and have done a great job of handling it.
“I’ve had conversations with Bill [Belichick]. We know that our players are strong. We’ve been through adversity before, but there’s really no comparisons as you’re getting out to these practices. We’re trying to get better, both teams every day.”
“There’s a lot of competition we have with the Patriots because obviously they’re a great team and they’ve won a lot of games. But they’re also a class organization who handled that situation amazingly,” said tight end Jimmy Graham. “We can learn from that, how they handled that situation and try and do the same going forward this year.”
“They went out and almost won every game, and obviously we hope we can put together the same type of result,” Brees said. “Certainly it’s something we can look at where maybe this is something similar we are going through. You try to take a negative and turn it into a positive.”
One of the singular characteristics to that 2007 New England team was a real sense of mental toughness, coming from behind on occasion and winning tough games on the road. Graham said that this Saints’ team has that same fortitude, one that’s been demonstrated several times over the last year.
“If you look back to last year, there were many games where Sean wasn’t on the sidelines because of his knee injury. There were games where we were on the road and down,” Graham said. “I think this team is very mentally tough. And as it goes on, we’re going to get tougher. This offseason, it can do nothing but make you tougher. We’re going to use that going into each one of these games.
“We have our coaches. We still have our leaders,” Graham added. “Drew is still here. A lot of guys are stepping up, and that’s what it’s about.”
The biggest difference between the 2007 Patriots and the 2012 Saints is likely the fact that while Belichick was allowed to coach New England to a conference championship that season, Payton will be banned from the sidelines. Even though his visage will be on display throughout the season at the facility reminding players to “Do Your Job,” Belichick said the game wouldn’t be the same without him.
“I miss Sean not being here,” Belichick said. “I think the world of Sean. He’s a great friend and I look forward to seeing him back out here soon.”
In the end, that us-against-the-world mentality was enough to get the 2007 Patriots to within two minutes of a perfect season. Brees said that because of what the Saints have already gone through, they’re going to be bringing a little extra this season.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” Brees said. “We were going to have one anyway, but there’s no shortage of motivation to go out and play well this year.”