Despite going 7-9, Saints liked their resilience


Despite going 7-9, Saints liked their resilience

METAIRIE, La. (AP) As Saints players dumped belongings from their lockers into huge brown bags, right tackle Zach Strief said he wished he could look forward to a new season devoid of questions about the bounty scandal.

The seven-year veteran and offensive captain knows better than that.

He expects everything the Saints do when Sean Payton returns in 2013 to be compared to how the team struggled while its coach was suspended in 2012.

``I'm sure it'll come up again next year when it's not even an issue because now it's his first year back,'' Strief said. ``So it'll probably take two years to really get away from it.''

That doesn't mean it will take two years to return to the playoffs.

Although the Saints (7-9) never did quite recover from an 0-4 start, those first four losses all were by single digits, and they went 7-5 the rest of the way.

Given that Drew Brees passed for a whopping 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns, and that both Marques Colston and Lance Moore surpassed the 1,000-yard mark receiving, the offense doesn't appear to need much work.

Even New Orleans' historically bad defense, which gave up the most yards (7,042) ever in a single season, demonstrated progress under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and registered the club's first shutout in 17 years earlier this month.

So while the Saints will take a hard look at what went wrong defensively this season, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who also coaches linebackers, doesn't expect a complete overhaul.

``Extreme makeover - I don't know about that. I really don't, but that's why we're in the evaluation process now,'' Vitt said Monday. ``We'll make sure that we're putting the right players in the right positions to make plays. We'll match the proper calls with personnel groupings and do a hard evaluation of ourselves, that's only fair.''

The Saints dealt with unprecedented punishment and distractions in 2012. Not only was Payton suspended the entire season, but Vitt was suspended six games and general manager Mickey Loomis eight games. The Saints also lost second-round draft choices in 2012 and 2013. Even though player suspensions for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive Will Smith never came to pass - they were thrown out on appeal - those players spent much of the season taking part in a legal effort to overturn their bounty sanctions.

While the Saints never used the bounty fallout as excuses during the season, they figured it took some sort of toll.

``I don't know how drastic of an effect it had ... but there was some effect there and there was a whole bunch of combination of things to equal the 7-9 record,'' linebacker Jonathan Casillas said.

The Saints' experienced team of assistants sought to take the same approach in terms of scheduling and routines that Payton had during the previous six seasons. They even had an expansive mural of a glaring Payton placed in the indoor practice facility to remind players of their banned coach's intensity, and that he was there with them in spirit.

Still, it was obvious that they missed Payton's ability to gauge the pulse of the team, motivate players and determine what needed to be fixed when things went wrong.

After winning more games than any team during the previous three seasons combined, the Saints had their first losing season since 2007 and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years.

``We certainly want coach back as soon as we can get him back,'' Strief said. ``We've said all along he's an important part of this organization. He's the leader of this organization, so you don't want to lose that guy.

``I know that he's going to be revved up. He's got 12 months of aggression wound up for us so I'm sure he'll be ready to go.''

The Saints will have a few key personnel issues to deal with when Payton returns, likely after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. Several regulars will be free agents, including left tackle Jermon Bushrod, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, receiver Devery Henderson and Casillas. The Saints appear ready to part with veteran linebacker Scott Shanle, a former starter who was a healthy scratch the past eight games.

Saints players said Monday they hoped most of them will remain, citing the bond created in the locker room among players who never quit on a season that seemed doomed from the start. First, New Orleans rallied from 0-4 to 5-5, then responded to a late-season three-game skid by winning two straight and helping to knock Dallas out of the playoffs.

``The underlying story should be the resilience and the courage of our men in this locker room,'' Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said. ``It was: Never give up on each other. Never give up on our team.

``We know that the business of football is unforgiving and we live in a production-oriented business,'' Greer added. ``Obviously, that changes every year and we realize that.''

Vitt, likewise, has said that the 2012 Saints was among his favorite teams in a career spanning more than three decades, and that he believes the way they handled the stresses of 2012 set them up for a very competitive 2013.

``We can sit and whine and sit here in self-pity and talk about coulda, shoulda, woulda, or we can try to get this thing behind us as soon as we can and move on to the business of getting better,'' Vitt said. ``That's what our players want to do. That's what our coaches want to do. That's what Sean would demand.

``But I have more respect now for this group of players and these coaches and our organization than I ever have,'' Vitt added. ``I'm proud to be a part of it.''

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Caps recall goalie Pheonix Copley after Braden Holtby 'tweaked something' in Dallas game


Caps recall goalie Pheonix Copley after Braden Holtby 'tweaked something' in Dallas game

You thought the Caps had a goalie rotation before, but now they have added a third netminder in the mix.

Pheonix Copley has been recalled from the Hershey Bears and will backup Philipp Grubauer for Washington's game in Detroit, the team announced Thursday.

The move comes in response to an injury concern for Braden Holtby.


Dallas Stars forward Remi Elie collided with Holtby midway through the third period on Tuesday as Holtby was extending to make a save. Holtby reacted awkwardly to the collision and could be seen skating and flexing his leg during the next stoppage.

With only nine games remaining in the regular season, Holtby's injury is a major concern. Given his recent struggles, the final few weeks of the season offered a chance for Holtby to get his game back to form. Just where his game will be when he is 100-percent healthy again is certainly a storyline to watch.


The good news for Washington, however, is that Grubauer is perhaps more ready this season to lead the team than he ever has been and confidence in him around the team should be high.

Since Thanksgiving, Grubauer has played in 22 games with a 17-11-4 record, a .939 save percentage, 1.85 GAA and two shutouts. No goalie who has played in 20 games or more has registered a better save percentage or GAA. He will certainly be looked upon to carry the load until Holtby returns. Whether this means he now has the inside track on starting in the playoffs, however, remains to be seen. That will depend largely on just when Holtby is ready to return and how Grubauer plays down the stretch.

Copley, 26, has gone 14-16-6 with two shutouts, a .898 save percentage and 2.86 GAA in 38 games in Hershey this season. He was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by Washington in 2014. He was traded to the St. Louis Blues in the package that netted the Caps T.J. Oshie, but was reacquired by Washington in Feb. 2017 in a trade deadline deal that included Kevin Shattenkirk.

At the time, it was believed Copley would be the team's backup for the 2017-18 season with Grubauer likely headed to Vegas in the expansion draft. Vegas, however, took Nate Schmidt instead which led to Copley spending the season in Hershey. The Caps now will be happy for the extra goalie depth for as long as Holtby's health remains a concern.

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Wizards to give fans Phil Chenier emoji signs and 1978 title shirts for special weekend

Wizards to give fans Phil Chenier emoji signs and 1978 title shirts for special weekend

This weekend was already going to be special for Washington Wizards fans. Now they will get souvenirs to remember it.

As part of their celebration of Phil Chenier's legendary career and the 40th anniversary of their 1978 NBA championship, the Wizards are handing out emoji signs on Friday night and commemorative t-shirts on Sunday. All fans in attendance will receive a giveaway.


The emoji sign has Chenier's face on it and will be handed out for the March 23 game against the Nuggets. Chenier will have his jersey retired at halftime during the game. 

The emoji sign is presented by NBC Sports Washington. You're welcome, Authentic Fans.


The shirts will be given out on Sunday when the Wizards host the New York Knicks. 

Here's the front...

And the back...

Let's take a closer look at that back...

As a reporter who has received many giveaways over the years at pro sports stadiums, these are uniquely awesome. Should be a great weekend for Wizards fans. See you at the arena.


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