NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Drew Brees, the unquestioned leader in the New Orleans Saints' locker room, calls Joe Vitt "the obvious choice" to take over as interim head coach while Sean Payton spends the entire 2012 season serving a suspension for his role in the club's bounty system.
Vitt was suspended six games in the scandal that remains under investigation by the NFL, and the Saints have not yet announced how his responsibilities will be divvied up during his absence for the first chunk of the regular season, but Brees hardly seems bothered by that.
"Joe Vitt is one of the most respected coaches I have ever been around," Brees said in an email to The Associated Press on Friday. "His ability to lead this team in an uncertain time throughout this off season and for whatever term we have him during the regular season is undeniable in our locker room."
Vitt, 57, has worked in the NFL since 1979 and joined the Saints as part of Payton's very first staff in 2006. During the 2009-10 Super Bowl championship season, Brees spoke glowingly of Vitt's leadership abilities, recalling a speech during which Vitt said players and coaches who win championships together walk together forever in history, regardless of where their individual careers may take them.
"He is the obvious choice and the best choice," Brees said. "I believe I speak for our entire team when I say we believe in him as much as he believes in us."
The Saints had consulted retired coach Bill Parcells, Payton's mentor from their days together in Dallas, while trying to figure out how to move on in Payton's absence. The club eventually decided to make the appointment from in-house, with general manager Mickey Loomis emphasizing the need for maintaining as much continuity as possible for a team seeking its fourth straight playoff appearance.
Vitt will be able to oversee the offseason training program and training camp before stepping aside for the first six weeks of the regular season.
The decision gives Saints players a measure of certainty and direction as the Monday opening of the offseason training program approaches.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins said the Saints, being a veteran team, are not all that concerned about a possible lack of continuity when Vitt misses the start of the season.
"The biggest part is really (from) now all the way through training camp because that's how you're going to set the tone with our goals and how we're going to practice," Jenkins said. "Once the season starts, we'll be able to carry ourselves for a little while. ... We do a great job already with self-governing and guys stepping up and taking their leadership roles. The biggest piece is going to be Drew. There's going to be a lot on his shoulders, and the other leaders on the team because the players have to take a lot of responsibility and burden on themselves."
Receiver Lance Moore added that players like and respect Vitt not just as a coach, but as a communicator and motivator.
"He's extremely excitable and can speak to people and make them want to run through a wall for them," Moore said. "That's the fiery guy, and he gives the energy when he speaks. When he speaks, people listen. I think it's a good fit for us."
Still looming are possible punishments for between 22 and 27 current and former Saints defenders that the NFL says participated in the crunch-for-cash bounty system that disgraced former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has apologized for running for the previous three seasons. An NFL report has said the system paid off-the-books bonuses for hits on targeted players that knocked them from games or left them needing help off the field.
Jenkins, a starter the past two seasons at free safety, said no one at the NFL has contacted him concerning the investigation.
Meanwhile, Brees still has not committed to showing up for workouts on Monday as he and the Saints continue to press for a long-term contract extension.
The Saints have placed the exclusive-rights franchise tag on Brees, locking him in for at least one more season. Brees, however, has said he does not want to play under the franchise tag, which amounts to a one-year deal with no long-term security in the case of an injury.
Saints owner Tom Benson, during his introduction as the new Hornets owner at NBA meetings in New York, said the Saints and Brees are "close" to a reaching a new contract
"It takes a little bit of time and patience and we have a few other things that are going on right now with the draft and players," said Benson, noting that he spoke with Brees by phone Friday morning. "But we have not forgotten about him."