METAIRIE, La. — Drew Brees walked into Saints headquarters wearing a black T-shirt with “Guantanamo Bay” printed on it.
It seemed like an appropriate choice of attire for New Orleans’ locker room leader, given how the Saints might have to adopt a bunker mentality to overcome the fallout from the bounty scandal that has overshadowed their off-season.
The star quarterback once visited the American military installation in Cuba, and spoke back then of how he admired the teamwork and discipline it took to maintain such an outpost on hostile territory.
On Tuesday, as the Saints reported for training camp, Brees discussed his expectation that his team would rise to meet its own unusual set of challenges, which include being without suspended head coach Sean Payton for the entire season.
“I’m excited about the unknown because in a lot of ways, we don’t necessarily know what to expect,” Brees said.
“With all this stuff swirling around us, in the end, all we can worry about is what we can control. … I know the type of guys we have. I know the coaches we have. I’m excited to watch it all come together.”
Brees said the Saints have the foundation in place “to weather any storm,” and that he is “all about doing things that have never been done before.”
The Saints are the first NFL team to have a head coach suspended at all, never mind a whole season.
That’s the punishment Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down to Payton for his failure to put a stop to what the league has described as a program that paid cash bonuses for tackles that injured opponents.
Two current New Orleans players also were suspended: linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire season and defensive end Will Smith for the first four games.
Now the Saints will try not only to move on without Payton and a pair of defensive leaders, but do so well enough to become the first team to play a Super Bowl on its home field when the Superdome hosts the NFL’s championship in February.
“I know what we’re made of. I know where we’ve been. I know where we want to go,” Brees said. “There’s no greater opportunity than what we have right now in front of us.”
Brees acknowledged that it is tough not being able to even talk to Payton this season, but added that the suspended head coach, who led the Saints to their only Super Bowl title in 2009-10, has groomed the very experienced players and coaches who remain for continued success.
“You see how he was able to influence others,” Brees said. “A lot of times they say that about a CEO. When he leaves the company, how does the company do? If they continue to succeed, in a lot of cases you can say it was because he helped mold and develop and mentor those that would take over after him, and I believe that’s what Sean Payton has done for all of us here.”
After playing six years under Payton, Brees said he even knows what his suspended head coach would say to him about his mechanics when a throw misses its target — to get his elbow up, rotate his hips and get his front shoulder down.
“His voice is going to be in my head whether it’s actually coming out of his mouth or not,” Brees said. “He’s present, even though he’s not present.”
The Saints will hold conditioning tests Wednesday and their first practice of camp on Thursday.
Assistant head coach Joe Vitt has been in charge since Payton’s suspension began in April, shortly before the draft. Vitt will continue to handle most head coaching duties until serving a six-game suspension to start the regular season, adding yet another challenge as it pertains to continuity on the coaching staff. The Saints have not announced who’ll take over Vitt’s role as the staff’s figurehead at that time.
In any event, Brees and Vitt said they were confident in the Saints’ ability to handle this most unusual of seasons because of a shared sense of responsibility that should leave no single coach or player trying to take on more than he can handle.
“Sean’s departing remarks to us was: ‘Just do your job,’” said Vitt, who was part of Payton’s first staff in 2006. “We’ve got a veteran staff here. We’ve got a lot of veteran players here. This team’s been through a lot together since we’ve been together in ‘06.
“Sean would be proud of the body of work that we’ve done to this point, but now we’re on the clock,” Vitt added. “It’s for real now.”
While the start of training camp represents a return to some semblance of normalcy, the distractions related to the bounty scandal are not going away any time soon. Before the Saints’ first open practice on Thursday afternoon, Vitt plans to go to U.S. District Court in downtown New Orleans to testify on behalf of Vilma, who is seeking a temporary restraining order that would allow him to return to Saints headquarters to rehabilitate from a left knee injury that required offseason surgery.
Curtis Lofton, a top free-agent acquisition, is expected to start in Vilma’s place this season, but Vitt still wants Vilma back if possible.
“I know Jonathan Vilma’s intent,” Vitt said. “I know his work habits. I know his leadership qualities. I know what he means to this team. ... He has always put his team and his teammates first and I stand behind Jonathan Vilma.”
Regardless of how this week’s hearing turns out, Vilma, Smith and two suspended former Saints — Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and Green Bay defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove — will continue to try to persuade a federal judge to permanently overturn their bounty punishment.
The ongoing court proceeding is bound to be a distraction, but only one of many the Saints will have to overcome.
“It’s not like we’re walking into this with a bunch of rookies,” Brees said. “We’ve been down some interesting roads before. Now, this is uncharted territory for us, but I know we’re equipped to handle whatever comes our way.”
NOTES: The Saints waived WR Kevin Hardy, and with Vilma on the suspended list, they were able to add TE Derek Schouman and WR Marques Clark to get to their training camp maximum of 90 players. Schouman is a former Boise State player who joined the NFL with Buffalo in 2007 and also has played with St. Louis. Clark formerly played at Henderson State.