Martin Fennelly Columns
Fennelly: New Orleans Saints paying price for scandalous misdeeds
TAMPA - The annual Bucs throwback game is this Sunday. Buccaneer Bruce, the Creamsicle jerseys, the works. In honor of the game, the New Orleans Saints are placing a bounty on Steve DeBerg. We are just kidding . Ah, the Saints and sinners. New Orleans comes to town for the first time since the scandal. It seemingly turned the Saints' world upside down. They went from once the pride of the NFL, post-Katrina heroes, to utter shame. They lost four games last regular season. They lost their first four games this season and stand at 1-4, if that's standing.The big mystery is whether New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma, one of the accused and suspended, will make his return against the Bucs. This week, for the first time this season, he is practicing with his team while awaiting a hearing on his appeal of his suspension – binders full of Vilma. This Sunday might be his only game. We do know Saints head coach Sean Payton will not be on the sideline. That stinker is out for the year. He was only allowed to be at the Saints' last game because the great Drew Brees was breaking Johnny Unitas' record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. The Saints grabbed their first win while he was at it. New Orleans linebackers coach Joe Vitt will take over the team as interim head coach after he finishes his six-game suspension, so this week New Orleans will go with offensive line/running game and interim interim head coach Aaron Kromer. I'll see your interim and raise you one. They also will go with a defense that is ranked last in the NFL. "It's an unprecedented situation and you can see it took a toll on the beginning of our season," Kromer said. "But if you watch our tape, we've gotten better and better as the season has gone on. We had a really slow start. We didn't look like us. But last week we did." "Well, I think people on the outside might think it's crisis for us, but on the inside it's not that at all," Brees said. "I think that we're a prideful group, we've got great leadership, great work ethic, great character. "...You've just got to stick together, stay positive, be very encouraging. And I think the whole way we've always felt that as long we do things the right way, good things are going to happen to us, we're going to catch a break." Then again, if they really had done things the right way… By the way, there is a real chance Vilma might play Sunday. In fact, one bookmaker has actually established the over-under of his tackles against the Bucs at four and a half. Also, I think the odds are 2-1 that the referees frisk Vilma for fresh hundreds. Bucs offensive lineman Carl Nicks played four seasons in New Orleans before coming to Tampa Bay. "I bled with them," Nicks said. "We won a Super Bowl together, so I know them pretty good. Sometimes it happens like that. They're a resilient team, they're battle tested. They'll be fine." Payton's absence has to mean something not very good, but let's remember that in his absence New Orleans has tumbled all the way to first in the NFL in passing offense. Sweet dreams, E.J. Biggers. Meanwhile, in case you're wondering if there's really any chance Vilma could make a contribution if he did play, let's roll back the tape a year to the curious case of former Bucs safety Tanard Jackson. Jackson came off a suspension, 56 weeks without football, and hopped right into the fray last season in a Week 6 win against these very Saints at Raymond James Stadium – the Bucs' last win of 2011. Goodness, Jackson even carried the team flag onto the field through a machine-made puff of smoke (If that isn't funny, nothing is). T Jack even had an interception, tying him for the team lead, with one. He took the lead, two, with a pick the next week against the Bears, after which he almost immediately received a two-year contract extension. Yeah, that was one nutty Bucs season. "That defense is going to be fine, especially if Vilma comes back,"' Carl Nicks said. "He's the Drew Brees of that defense. With him back, you can expect them at their best." Or worst.