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Saints say NFL bounty probe took a toll on season

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Saints say NFL bounty probe took a toll on season

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Blame the bounty scandal.

That's what many in New Orleans are doing, including some Saints.

They blame it for overshadowing their entire season, for unfairly portraying the team as the NFL's No. 1 sinners.

And they blame it, in part, for a mistake-prone 0-4 start that led to New Orleans not making the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Players and coaches had said they would not allow the NFL's disruptive probe of the Saints' cash-for-hits program and resulting suspensions - including head coach Sean Payton's full-season ban - to become an excuse for failure. At the same time, few at club headquarters say it had no bearing on the club's performance.

``Forever you can equate the two and I think it's fair to equate the two,'' said linebacker Scott Shanle, now finishing his seventh season in New Orleans. ``Never has a coach been suspended for an entire year and it's a pretty big deal when you look at the grand scheme of what a head coach does, especially a coach like coach Payton, who's had the success he's had.''

In addition to Payton's suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six games before returning to serve in the interim head coaching role he assumed when Payton's suspension began in the offseason. While Vitt was away, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer stepped in as interim to the interim head coach.

Two defensive captains also were punished initially. But linebacker Jonathan Vilma and end Will Smith undertook a lengthy legal battle that overturned their suspensions, which otherwise would have sideline Vilma for a year and Smith for four games.

Publicly, Vitt preached that the Saints must avoid the temptation to point to the bounty probe when things went wrong. Yet Vitt had a different take when he appeared earlier this month as a witness at a closed hearing for the players' appeals of their punishment.

Speaking before former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed to oversee the hearings, Vitt made it clear he felt the NFL had undermined the competitive integrity of the league with harsh punishments based primarily on the testimony of two fired assistant coaches: former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo.

``How are we going to sell this to our public? How are we going to sell this to the season ticket holders, that this has all taken place? We're 5-7, we've disappointed a community, we've disappointed a region because of Mike Cerullo and Gregg Williams? How do we do this? How do we sell this?'' Vitt said on Dec. 3, according to transcripts obtained by The Associated Press. ``Sean is suspended for a year, Mickey Loomis for eight weeks? ... Who got hurt? Who was maimed? Look at the film. Who are we going to sell this to?''

Less than a week after Vitt's testimony, the Saints visited the New York Giants and lost 52-27, falling to 5-8.

New Orleans has since rallied for two straight wins, and can finish the season 8-8 with a victory at home on Sunday over Carolina. But that is far short of expectations for a team that won more regular-season and playoff games combined than any other during the previous three seasons.

``We can reflect much more at the end of the season. I'd rather not even try to go too deep right now,'' quarterback Drew Brees said this week when asked about the bounty probe's toll. ``Were there distractions? Yeah. Was there circumstances swirling around us that were just crazy and we had no idea what to expect, challenges? Yes, most definitely. But I will not allow myself, we will not allow our team, to use that as a crutch or an excuse. Others might say ... `It affected you guys.' That's fine, but we're not going to go there.''

The Saints have long since acknowledged they had a performance pool that offered nominal cash rewards for big plays, including big hits, similar to what numerous other teams have run for generations. However, players and coaches have been adamant that they never ran a bounty program of the nefarious and intentionally injurious nature described by the league, and that they were unjustly singled out and punished.

Saints right tackle Zach Strief said he and teammates were angry about the way the club was treated by the league, but added that players generally have tunnel vision during the season.

``There's a period in the offseason when you can feel that way, and then once the season starts there's no time to worry about it,'' Strief said.

Strief said the experienced assistant coaches who ran the team in Payton's absence did a good job keeping the routine largely the same and delivering messages in meetings similar to the way Payton had in the past.

``I don't ever remember going on the field and saying, `That meeting on Wednesday really has me shaken up.' So I don't think there's necessarily an effect like that,'' Strief said. ``But obviously there's a reason (Payton is) a head football coach in the NFL, because he's a talented coach, and so it's not just players that lose something from him not being here. He's also an integral part of our coaching staff and they didn't have him. So you're putting those coaches in situations they've never been in.

``It's more work and more pressure and stress on everybody. Coach Payton carries this big weight, and when he leaves it has to get picked up by a lot of people. You can't deny there's not an effect, but to sit there and say, `How many wins does that get you?' is impossible.''

New Orleans has won seven of 11 games since the 0-4 start, leaving Shanle to wonder whether the impact of Payton's absence did not manifest itself most early in the regular season. The Saints lost all four games by single digits, including an overtime loss at home to a Kansas City team that is now 2-13.

``I think the start of our season would have been different. We would have won one or two games here or there that would have changed everything to where we are now,'' Shanle said. ``We all said it wouldn't affect us, but it was much harder when that reality came. But after we got used to, `This is how the flow is going to be now,' we played better. We just never played consistently. Our play reflected the roller coaster that was our offseason and our summer.''

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Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Vitek Vanecek will play in NHL's round robin, but Capitals' Stanley Cup hopes rest with Braden Holtby

Brought up to replace the injured Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek's first taste of NHL hockey will come inside the bubble in Toronto. Not exactly the best of circumstances. 

But Vanecek plays an important role on a Capitals team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Should Braden Holtby struggle or get hurt during the playoffs, Washington will need its young back-up goalie to keep their team afloat and let his talented skaters take it from there.

That's why NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May, during an appearance with The Sports Junkies Tuesday, looks forward to seeing Vanecek play a little bit in the round-robin portion of the NHL restart. Ideally, though, it stops there.

"[Vanecek] probably will get one of these games, [the Capitals] said that from the start," May said. "But I hope he doesn't play once they get to the playoff rounds. I think it would be wise to play him in [round robin] games, it's not the end of the world what the seeding is in this. He's a good size goaltender, I think he's about 6'2, and with the training that he's had, he's worked on the fundamentals of his game, he's gotten his conditioning up. He looks very similar to Holtby in net, He's gotten a lot of good reps in American Hockey [League] just like Holtby did around the same age."

And what's the reason why no Caps fan should want to see Vanecek in the postseason? It's simple really. Because this team's best chance at another title revolves around Holtby being a steady and stifling presence between the pipes throughout the playoffs. 

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"I think the big thing with this is you really don't want to see [Vanecek] in the net after the round robin," he said. "If they're going to win this thing, it's gonna have to be Braden Holtby getting 16 wins. To me, the most important thing is that Holtby plays in the playoffs, the guy's dynamite, no leaky goals out of him."

This could be Holtby's last playoff run with the Capitals as he enters a contract year. The Caps already committed long term money to Nicklas Backstrom this season, they have an Alex Ovechkin extension to worry about and the flat salary cap certainly won't do them any favors either. Not to mention the presence of Samsonov after a stellar rookie season. 

So if this is it, if this is Holtby's last dance in Washington, he at least looks ready to play his best hockey when it matters most.  

"He looks focused and dialed in, and he wants to make sure if he's going out and won't be a Capital anymore he wants to go home with a victory in his last game."

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With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

With the way Alex Smith has looked so far, Ron Rivera 'can envision' him being in the quarterback mix

Positive reports about Alex Smith's early training camp performance came out over the weekend, and on a Tuesday morning Zoom call with the media, Ron Rivera echoed those reviews.

"He's looked good, he really has," the head coach said. "I'll be honest, I was pleasantly surprised to see how far along he is. It's been exciting to watch his progression."

According to Rivera, Smith has been working off to the side with Washington Football Team trainers at the Ashburn facility and is mirroring what Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen are doing, too. Coordinator Scott Turner and QBs coach Ken Zampese are apparently involving Smith as much as they can, and Smith is looking "very fluid" so far.

"It's a tribute to who he is, it's a tribute to his trainers and his doctors who have helped him get where he is today," Rivera said.

That all, of course, is wildly encouraging. The fact that the 36-year-old is in a place where he can check off those boxes and do those activities is astounding. That can't be pointed out enough, either.

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Yet it's also fair to note just how different mimicking a starting signal caller and actually serving as the starting signal caller are. So, is there any real chance of Smith transitioning from that first phase to the second before the season? 

With what he's seen from the veteran so far, Rivera certainly believes there is.

"I can envision it," he said. "The big thing is if he can do the things that we need him to do, that he needs to do to help himself on the football field, he'll be part of the conversation most definitely. He did some really good things last week. He went through all four workout days, had no residual effect the next morning, which is always important because the next day usually tells.

"We'll see how he is this week and we'll go from there."

As Smith continues to rehab and try to make his way off PUP, the challenges are solely physical. Rivera is not worried at all about the veteran having to adjust to a new scheme or dealing with any other mental task; instead, the primary concern is ensuring that Smith can handle the contact that'll come if he makes it back into live action.

"I believe he already knows probably 75-percent of our playbook," Rivera said. "So for him, it's really just a matter of can he do the movements he needs to do? Can he protect himself when he's on the field?"

It feels like every time Smith is brought up, he's taken another step. The next one, however — going from the PUP list to the huddle — is particularly daunting.

But at this point, it's gotten pretty difficult to imagine anything being particularly daunting for Alex Smith. So don't be that floored if he makes it happen. Rivera clearly won't be. 

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