|Gerald Herbert/Associated Press|
|With Jonathan Vilma's suspension, Curtis Lofton (above) is immediately thrust into the spotlight in New Orleans.|
METAIRIE, La. -- The specter of punishments for their bounty system was looming, and the New Orleans Saints knew it. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had announced as much on March 2, revealing an extensive investigation that would eventually lead to serious suspensions.
Just two weeks later, the Saints hosted free-agent linebacker Curtis Lofton on what amounted to a recruiting trip. They wined and dined him on a Sunday night, selling the former Atlanta Falcons star on donning the black and gold, despite the dark clouds swirling.
And Lofton made them work for it, rearing back and firing several pointed queries for the Saints. From a possible ban for linebacker Jonathan Vilma to whether coach Sean Payton would be on the sidelines to whether a contract would be done for quarterback Drew Brees -- Lofton had to know before he signed anything.
"I asked every single question," Lofton said Wednesday, after a crush of media dissipated from his locker at the Saints' facility following OTAs. "I mean, I asked about the bounties, what was going on with that, what players they thought were going to be suspended, what they thought the suspensions were, what they were going do with me and Vilma -- I asked all those questions. They were very up front and truthful with me, and I feel very comfortable with my decision."
When the smoke cleared, and when Lofton exited New Orleans the following day, he had heard enough. On March 25, Lofton agreed to a five-year deal with his former rival, giving the team a steady, hard-working middle linebacker who had 147 tackles last year.
All of this was before Vilma was suspended for the season (barring a successful appeal) and before Payton was banished from the facility for a year. Thanks to his fact-finding mission, Lofton prepared for all scenarios. And Lofton feels even more comfortable in New Orleans now than he did when he signed. The reason, as he explained, is obvious.
"It felt like family to me and I talked to the guys and ... you just get that gut feeling," Lofton said. "Like, this is where you need to be. These guys, they put their head down and go to work. Whatever's going on in this building, outside this building, no one worries about that. Because when we get on that football field, it's all football. I really feel like it's just bringing us all together."
That's what Lofton has bought into. The 6-foot, 241-pound former second-round pick from Oklahoma is slated to play in the middle now. Among the contingency situations Lofton considered, he broached the possibility of playing the weak-side spot if Vilma's suspension is lifted. He felt it would work itself out.
"Our main thing was we wanted to win," Lofton said. "Get all the best players on the field at the same time and go from there."
Through six practices, the Saints like what they see from Lofton. He has joined what interim coach Joe Vitt describes as the deepest linebacker group he's been around. And though the Saints watched Lofton hurt them over the years in the fierce rivalry with Atlanta, Vitt is still impressed with what he's seen.
"No. 1, he's lost some weight and body fat," Vitt said. "His ability to change direction in space, his ability to drop his weight and burst on the ball, and then his angles to the ball and his closing speed have been shocking to me. They've been shocking to his teammates, too. We know what we've got: We've got a thumper. To watch his athleticism in space, his ability to flip his hips and burst, has really been a nice addition."
As of now, it looks like Lofton will take Vilma's place for a defense now run by Steve Spagnuolo. Lofton has played in a similar system before, but he's working on learning this one, specifically. He considers his mind his greatest asset -- and it might the greatest asset of his team, too. While craziness swirls around them, the Saints have gone to work. What else can they do?
"All those things at this point are out of our control," defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said. "The whole thing with (Brees), there's a business side to this, and I think we all know that. That will, I'm sure, get done in time. As far as the whole bounty situation, that's pretty much out of our hands. We come and we work and we go to practice every day like we're supposed to. Everything that happened last year has to be put in the past for us to move forward."
Lofton considered all of it. Once a Falcon, he didn't even allow himself any schadenfreude when the news broke of the Saints' bounty investigation. He was already considering joining the team. And he's happy he did.
"I played the worst-case scenarios," Lofton sad. "For me, it didn't matter. I still wanted to come here and be a part of something, and I think the players in this locker room are great. We have a good chance of going to the Super Bowl."
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