METAIRIE, La. — Joe Vitt used his first public comments as the face of the Saints' coaching staff to accept some blame for the bounty scandal that has plagued the club's offseason. Then he sought to clear the names of his players.
"At no time did any of our players ever cross the white line with the intention of hurting another player," the assistant head coach said Tuesday afternoon. "That being said, I'm serving a six-game suspension for the spoken word, not the clenched fist."
Vitt said his problem was the words he used in his motivational speeches when he was trying to urge defenders to play with the type of hard-hitting toughness that reduces an opponent's will to compete. He said he was "on board 100 percent" with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's player safety goals and would change the way he addresses his charges.
"Talking to players and the expectation that you have for players, it's got to be different. I take full responsibility for that, and I've got to get better at it," Vitt said.
Vitt is handling head coach Sean Payton's duties while Payton serves a season-long suspension in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation, which concluded that former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams offered improper cash bonuses for hits that hobbled targeted opponents.
Vitt said the Saints would look to rise above swirling offseason distractions and keep expectations for their on-field performance high as the club seeks a fourth straight playoff appearance.
"Understand one thing: We ain't down. We are not down," Vitt said. "We've got 41 wins over the last three years and we've got a great building full of players. We've got a great scouting staff. We've got a great administration. We've got a great owner. And we are looking forward to starting the season. Again, the excuses are out there for us not to perform. But we are all held accountable for our jobs.
"Anything that happens outside this building can never be an excuse for what's taken place inside the building," Vitt added. "Our players are working hard. We've had a great first week. ... Our players are focused. Our coaches are focused. Our owner is focused. Our building is focused. We owe it to our fans. Our fans have always been there for us. Now we want the people of New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region to be proud of us. We're going to give them our best."
Vitt said he had not spoken to Payton since his suspension began April 16, the longest he has gone in about a decade without speaking to a man he considers his close friend. Even as Vitt sought to maintain high expectations for the Saints, he did not diminish the sense of loss he and others around team headquarters have endured since their head coach cut off contact as ordered by the league.
"We're going to miss his passion, his vision, his play-calling, his understanding," Vitt said. "You know, Sean is like a father figure to a lot of guys on this football team. And you don't replace that. Listen, Sean Payton's record speaks for itself. They're Hall of Fame credentials for the first six years of a career. And this is what Sean does. And there's not a day that goes by that we won't miss him, and that we don't miss him."
The last thing Payton said before he left the building on his last day of work was simply, "Do you job," Vitt recalled.
"Everybody in this organization will do their job," Vitt said. "This is a roster that's made up of character players that are accountable to one another."
The Saints have endured a slew of bad publicity since the NFL released findings of its bounty investigation March 2. Along with Payton and Vitt's punishment, general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended eight games. The club is still trying to sign star quarterback Drew Brees to an extension, and he has skipped the first week-and-a-half of voluntary workouts. And this week, an anonymously sourced ESPN report alleged that Loomis' Superdome booth was wired to allow him to eavesdrop on opposing coaches' radio communications. State and federal authorities have begun investigating whether any wiretapping laws were broken, but Vitt called the allegations "ludicrous" and "irresponsible."
Vitt, who joined the club in 2006, made it clear that for him, there remains no shame in being one of the leaders of the Saints, regardless of the way public impressions of the franchise may have evolved in the past few months.
"I know how we coach. I know how our players play. I know the togetherness of the organization, the togetherness of our team, how hard we work," Vitt said. "So I have great peace of mind. I can't be everything to all people, but I know in my heart what we're about."