NFL

Payton-less Saints ready for Cardinals in Hall of Fame game

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Associated Press
8/4/2012 1:33:55 PM
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CANTON, Ohio -- The Saints haven't seemed all that far removed from suspended coach Sean Payton.

When they walked into their indoor practice facility last month, they saw a large mural of the coach glaring at them with the message "Do your job" -- his parting words before starting a one-season penalty for the team's bounty scandal.

That's not all.

Payton got the NFL's permission to come to Canton for the induction of former Saints tackle Willie Roaf into the Hall of Fame on Saturday, another reminder that he's still around in a sense.

The first significant change comes Sunday night.

The Saints (No. 9 in the AP Pro32) will play without him for the first time in the Hall of Fame game against the Arizona Cardinals (No. 23). They'll get their orders from assistant coach Joe Vitt, who is running the team for now.

New Orleans gets to start adjusting to its new normal. Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma are gone for the season.

"Just to get back to playing football after what's gone on, I think it's a sanctuary for us," linebacker Scott Shanle said.

A sanctuary from an awful off-season. In addition to the penalties for running a program that paid players to hurt opponents, quarterback Drew Brees skipped workouts and minicamp because he was unhappy about getting the team's franchise tag. He eventually got a five-year, $100 million deal, and the Saints started trying to get past their many problems.

A team that won 13 games last season returns most of its offence intact, its best hope of reaching the playoffs for the fourth straight season, one that ends with the Super Bowl in New Orleans.

There's no sense of doom in the Superdome -- not yet, anyway.

"That may be the way that people like to frame it," said Brees, who is expected to play only a series or two on Sunday. "But that is not the way that we look at it. You can say that it just adds a little extra motivation. It just puts another chip on our shoulder, but we already had a chip on our shoulder.

"It seems to be the hot topic for us, but it is just business as usual. You deal with it. Whatever comes your way, you deal with it."

The Saints will get their look at how their new defence performs. They fired co-ordinator Gregg Williams before his leading role in the bounty program was uncovered, replacing him with Steve Spagnuolo. New Orleans is expected to blitz less and play more zone coverage in the new scheme.

Mostly, it's a chance to get a feel for how things will be without Payton calling the shots. The players missed him a little when a 9-foot-tall statue of Steve Gleason's 2006 punt block was unveiled outside the Superdome last month.

"It's tough when we do things like this," Shanle said. "The first big thing was the unveiling of the statue for Steve Gleason. It's something that popped into my mind that it was a shame that coach Payton couldn't be there.

"But I'm sure coach Payton read about it somewhere. We just kind of have to deal with the hand we've been dealt."

For the Cardinals, it's the start of a long journey that will help determine their quarterback. They finished 8-8 last season after a slow start. Coach Ken Whisenhunt is letting Kevin Kolb and John Skelton compete for the starting quarterback job during camp.

The Hall of Fame game provides one extra chance to make an impression.

"We're trying to make our mark every single day," said Kolb, who will get the opening series on Sunday. "Every single practice counts. Obviously the games are a little bit more important, but if you start pressing, getting yourself in those kind of modes, I think we know what happens there."

After the Hall of Fame game, the Cardinals will fly to Kansas City and practice there for the next preseason game against the Chiefs.

They packed well.

"We're going to be all over the place," Whisenhunt said. "We're going into Canton and we're staying outside of Cleveland, staying there for a day then going to Missouri Western for training camp and then down into Kansas City."

Both teams will get to see the Hall of Fame before playing in a game that has special meaning for the town. The NFL's lockout prompted the league to call off the game last year, costing the hall and the northern Ohio city.

There's more labour trouble as the game resumes, however. The league has locked out the officials as part of a labour dispute and will use replacements for the game on Sunday night.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said on Saturday that the league and the officials are still talking.

"We had some discussions earlier this week," he said. "I don't think anything's scheduled again. We'd like to get there. We have great respect for our officials, but we have to be prepared to play the season.

"So we've been working with the replacement officials for a couple of months. They're in training camps. They'll be prepared to go if we need to do it."

Sean Payton mural at Saints' practice (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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