Deep craters mark the Saints' organization following Wednesday's announcement of the discipline that key coaching staff and front-office members face following the NFL's investigation into their bounty program.
It's up to owner Tom Benson to pick up the pieces.
The highest level of management — Benson — was cleared by the league, which reported that ownership directed the program to be stopped once it became aware of it and was fully cooperative with NFL investigators.
The club is down $500,000 today and a second-round pick both this year and next year, following the discipline handed down by commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday. Head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for a year, effective April 1, without pay (which amounts to a loss of about $8 million). GM Mickey Loomis has been suspended for the first eight games of the regular season without pay, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt will be suspended for the first six regular-season games without pay.
Punishment for the 22-27 players involved in the bounty program — some of whom are still with the Saints — is coming, and it could also be severe in some cases.
Benson has to act shrewdly to keep the Saints' dream of being one of the participants in next year's Super Bowl, for which New Orleans is the host city, alive.
It may sound like a near-impossible task today, given the gut punch the franchise just took. We won't have a completely clear picture of what lies ahead for the team until Goodell announces the disciplinary measures taken against the players. The Saints' roster is still a title-caliber one at this point, though, and Benson owes it to the fans, from whom he asked for support on Wednesday, to do all he can to keep the severe penalties from destroying the team's 2012 season.
Saints CB Jabari Greer let out a rallying cry in response to the discipline on Wednesday.
"The punishment that was imposed, it seems as if they are trying to destroy our season," Greer said. "They are trying to take away our leaders, take away our leadership. But it's not going to happen. We are New Orleans. We will be strong, we will get through this, we will fight through this, and we will win."
We know this franchise is not short on confidence or gall. It's time for it to prove its competence in the face of the sort of adversity no team has ever experienced.
Here are five steps Benson should take in the days ahead:
1. Look outside for a head coach willing to accept a one-year job
The Saints have candidates to fill in for Payton, in offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, but put out some feelers to veteran head coaches out of work right now to see if they would be interested in taking the job for the next year. It might be less disruptive than taking one of the coordinators out of his position. Let Carmichael call plays, as he did at times last season, and Spagnuolo do the job he was hired to do and have a wise veteran oversee things from the top post.
It seems highly unlikely that Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden would be interested in such a job. What about calling a guy who might actually want the job and relish the challenge?
Put in a call to Bill Parcells. He's very close to Payton, who resurrected his coaching career on Parcells' staff in Dallas. Payton even asked Parcells — who was then an executive with the Dolphins — to speak to the Saints in the week leading up to the Super Bowl in 2010. Parcells ultimately declined, but he gave Payton advice that week and was rooting for New Orleans.
Why not see if Parcells would have interest in coming on board?
Plan B should be to turn to Spagnuolo, who was fired in January after three seasons as the Rams' head coach. Let Carmichael lead the offense and have Spagnuolo step in as head coach, with secondary coach Ken Flajole, who served as Spagnuolo's defensive coordinator in St. Louis, running the defense.
2. Get Drew Brees signed
Before the offseason started, the biggest story line for the Saints was Brees' contract situation. Then the bounty investigation was announced March 2.
The exclusive franchise tag has been applied to Brees, which stops him from negotiating with other teams. Brees is unhappy. He wants a long-term deal and could hold out if he doesn't get one. The deadline for tagged players to sign multiyear contracts is July 16, but in an offseason like this, the last thing the Saints need is to be without their leader the next time the team comes together.
Benson should order Loomis to get a deal done with Brees before offseason practices begin in mid-May. The two sides are reportedly about $5 million — $18.5 million vs. $23 million per year — apart.
Close the gap. Get it done.
3. Prepare to part with Jonathan Vilma
The highest-profile player alleged to have participated in the bounty program is Vilma, the Saints' middle linebacker and defensive captain.
In its report Wednesday, the NFL said multiple sources confirmed that Vilma offered $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game.
Given the way Goodell has gone about his business thus far, the biggest fishes have reason to squirm the most. It seems pretty likely that Vilma will face the stiffest penalty — perhaps a lengthy suspension — of any of the players involved.
The Saints reportedly met with free-agent MLB Curtis Lofton on Sunday, and he would be a fine replacement for Vilma. While Vilma will forever be associated with bounties, Lofton's image is in great standing, by all accounts. He was a leader for the Falcons over the past four seasons, has plenty of experience and knows the NFC South well. It could be a pretty seamless transition from Vilma to Lofton in the middle of the defense.
Lofton is four years younger than Vilma and would certainly be better vs. the run than Vilma, who missed five games last season after undergoing knee surgery.
Releasing Vilma, who appears to be in decline, would save about $3.4 million in salary-cap space. Meddlesome owners can do more harm than good, and Benson shouldn't be making football decisions, but this is a move he should encourage. Begin to get away from the stench of the bounty program.
4. Select Rick Reiprish to be interim GM while Loomis serves his suspension
The two obvious candidates to fill in for Loomis while he serves his suspension are director of pro scouting Ryan Pace and director of college scouting Rick Reiprish.
Put the more experienced evaluator — Reiprish — in charge. Pace would continue in his role, and although Reiprish has an assistant director of college scouting — Brian Adams — Pace does not have an assistant director of pro scouting. Have Reiprish, who knows pro personnel even though he's assigned to the college side, manage the roster for the first eight weeks, with Pace, and have Adams function as the college scouting director, with Pace continuing in his current role.
5. Make sure Joey Laine is ready for greater role
One area where Reiprish is probably going to need some assistance is managing finances and the salary cap. He's done plenty of evaluating of players, but how much involvement has he had in negotiating contracts and managing the cap?
That's where Laine comes in. Who is Joey Laine, you ask?
He serves as the Saints' salary-cap analyst/player personnel and has been with the Saints since 2005, when he started as an intern. According to the team's website, Laine assists with the daily management of the salary cap and also researches player contracts from around the NFL.
Loomis is in charge of managing the salary cap, and he's been very effective in that role. Some say he's one of the best in the league at it. Laine has had time to learn from Loomis, and the person filling in for Loomis may have to lean on him for assistance.
Loomis' suspension will not begin until Week One of the regular season, and there usually are not many moves involving major money decisions made in-season. But managing the cap is a year-round job, and it will be important for the team to have someone with expertise in that area in place.