FLOWERY BRANCH — Falcons players, who were around during the team’s infamous 2007 season, have no sympathy for the New Orleans Saints, who are trying to battle through their Bounty Gate season.
In 2007, the Falcons’ season was over before it started under first-year coach Bobby Petrino. They would see quarterback Michael Vick go to jail on federal dogfighting charges and his job handed to Joey Harrington.
With three games left, Petrino would toss his hands in the air and leave for a college job at Arkansas. It was the most bizarre of NFL seasons, until this year.
With the NFL emphasizing player safety, the Saints were found to have a pay-for-play bounty program, and harsh penalties were imposed that included player, coach and executive suspensions and fines.
Coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year, and general manager Mickey Loomis returned Tuesday from his eight-game suspension. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma is playing while he appeals his suspension.
“You just have to deal with it,” said Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who was with the team in 2007. “Every season isn’t perfect; 2007 was probably one of the worst seasons that we’ve had around here.”
The Saints opened this season losing their first four games. They have won three of their past four to pull to 3-5 at the halfway point.
In 2007, the Falcons finished 4-12.
“We just had to deal with the adversity that came around that year,” Babineaux said. “We managed to make it through that and from there on; there’s been nothing but forward progress.”
It may be tough to quantify what losing Payton has meant to the Saints, who have won the NFC South title in two of the past three seasons and won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season.
“I don’t know how (tough) it’s been,” White said. “He did a lot of play-calling with the offense. It may affect them on offense.”
Falcons left guard Justin Blalock was a rookie during the 2007 season. He endured a rude welcome to the NFL.
“We’ve had a couple of tough seasons around here as well,” Blalock said. “It’s really tough to say what’s going on. You have to put it out of your mind. You have to worry about things that are in the realm of your control.
“You just go out, play and try to have fun.”
Falcons running back Michael Turner wasn’t around for all of the fun in 2007.
“Hopefully, I’ll never have to feel that way or have to think about it,” Turner said about losing a head coach. “It’s something that we can’t control.”
Just when the Saints were starting to see a bit of normalcy, it was recently reported that Payton’s contract could be voided.
Now, the Saints have a new distraction. Will Payton return after he serves out his suspension?
“The only thing I can promise you is this, is that our football team and our football players love Sean Payton,” interim coach Joe Vitt said. “Sean loves this team and these players. This city loves Sean, and Sean loves this city. I anticipate and I would bet my life that Sean is going to be here for a long time to come.
“At some point in time, we’re going to have that stability, and our head coach will return to our football team.”
In the meantime, while the Saints are fighting to reach that state, Vitt plans to make sure that everyone gets evaluated properly.
“Quite frankly, this is a production business,” Vitt said. “I’ve got to do my job. Our coaches have to do their jobs. Our players have to do their jobs. That’s what we’re going to be paid for, and that’s what we are going to be judge by.”
The Saints still have their high-powered offense that is led by quarterback Drew Brees. They have averaged 27.3 point per game, which ranks eighth in the league.
But the defense had been abysmal. The unit has given up 471.3 yards per game, which ranks last (32nd).
“I’m proud of the job that our players have done so far, sticking through some tough times,” Vitt said.
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