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posted: 9/8/2012 1:25 AM

Saints not only NFL team hurt by suspensions

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  • The New Orleans Saints will be without head coach Sean Payton this season, who was suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

    The New Orleans Saints will be without head coach Sean Payton this season, who was suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
    Associated Press/file

By Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer

NEW YORK -- Unquestionably, the New Orleans Saints have been damaged more than any NFL team by suspensions heading into the season, even with Friday's appeals rulings that temporarily made Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith eligible to play.

They are not the only short-handed team, though, and the impact could be powerful in several other cities.

One of those is Cleveland, which has been a victim of the Saints' bounty program punishments handed down by Commissioner Roger Goodell -- penalties that now are in limbo. Browns linebacker and defensive leader Scott Fujita eventually might have to sit out three games for his role in the bounties when he was with New Orleans. Top cornerback Joe Haden this week was appealing his four-game ban for failing a drug test.

Fujita has insisted he is innocent, just as the other Saints who are barred -- linebacker Vilma for the entire season, defensive end Smith for four games -- have done. And their battles against the suspensions in court were fruitful for the time being, with Fujita and Smith expected to play Sunday. Vilma, recovering from knee woes, is in no shape to take the field.

Kansas City's defense also will be without a key performer. Tamba Hali sidelined for the opener against Atlanta. A pass rush to make Matt Ryan uncomfortable and neutralize deep threats Julio Jones and Roddy White is essential for beating the Falcons. Hali also would be a key to stopping Michael Turner and Atlanta's run game.

"We're disappointed. We're disappointed for him, for the team, for the organization and the fans, but it is what it is," Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. "He's a guy who is very prideful, he's been a very good team member for this team, and I think the team will rally around him."

The Chiefs really need to rally without him.

Denver also will not have an important defender, D.J. Williams, and that's a long-term deal. Williams lost his court battle to overturn his six-game ban for violating the league's drug policy. The case has featured some wild twists, including the league saying urine samples Williams provided did not come from a human.

Also, the specimen collector said he had watched Williams provide the samples, though at times he watched from the side rather than with a full frontal view, according to court documents. The collector was later fired.

Williams argued to no avail that the NFL violated its own protocol leading up to his suspension.

Williams has been the team's leading tackler in four of the last five seasons. His absence could be felt well beyond the opener with Pittsburgh.

Tennessee will be without top receiver Kenny Britt for the first week. The problem is, the Patriots are in town for that first week. But Britt also is coming off knee issues that border on chronic and might not have been a factor Sunday.

One receiver who has stood out in the preseason, Minnesota's Jerome Simpson, is gone for three games after having violated the league's drug policy. Hardly a game-breaker thus far in his four-year career, Simpson has shown signs of maturing as a pass catcher. With star running back Adrian Peterson returning from major knee surgery and the Vikings using a second-year quarterback, Christian Ponder, not having Simpson could create a huge void.

Fortunately for Minnesota, it opens with weak Jacksonville and Indianapolis.

Detroit has all kinds of issues at running back, with its incumbent Jahvid Best sidelined by concussion symptoms, something that also plagued him in college. The Lions hoped Mikel Leshoure, their 2011 second-round pick, would be a factor in the backfield, but he missed his entire rookie year after tearing his left Achilles tendon during training camp.

Now, he has to sit for two games as punishment for two offseason arrests.

Detroit will wing the ball around regardless of who is available to run it. Still, any team needs some balance, even one with Matthew Stafford flinging to Calvin Johnson.

Washington won't have safety Tanard Jackson all year. He can apply for reinstatement next August. Jackson had two drug-related suspensions during his five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before being barred for 12 months for again violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Player suspensions, should they wind up being served, could turn out less significant than coaches being docked, however. New Orleans is a veteran team two seasons removed from winning the championship. In Drew Brees, it has perhaps the best on-field leader of anyone in football.

But it has to be disruptive not only to be without head coach Sean Payton for an entire season, but also for his replacement, Joe Vitt, to be gone for six games -- after guiding the Saints through training camp and preseason games. They have not appealed their punishments.

The Saints are using brave words and taking an "us against the NFL" approach to the season. Their strong offense could carry them far, but a weakened defense -- not that strong a unit in the first place -- and the upheaval on the coaching staff might be too much to overcome if Smith and Vilma wind up on the suspension list again.

"We've established a culture here that everyone has bought into, and when you've established a culture, no matter who's at the top of it, it's always the same," said safety Malcolm Jenkins, one of the defensive captains for 2012.

"The Saints organization is not about Sean Payton. It's not about (general manager) Mickey Loomis. It's not about Joe Vitt or a certain person. The New Orleans Saints have a culture in what we do. So the way we practice, the way we meet, the schedule in which we do things all have a purpose and everybody buys into it."

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