Resilient New Orleans Saints can only take so much

There's the thinking that everything the New Orleans Saints are going through was worth it. That having defensive captain Jonathan Vilma banned for the entire 2012 season and fellow captain Will Smith suspended for the first four games on Wednesday, in addition to the suspensions of coaches and executives and the loss of draft picks because of the bounty scandal, is digestable because there's a Lombardi Trophy sitting in the franchise's awards case.

Indianapolis, Miami and St. Louis have also won Super Bowl titles and we see where those franchises stand today.

'Bounty' player punishments

Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the 2012 season, one of four Saints players punished for their roles in the team's "bounty" program. **More ...**

The unforgettable success New Orleans had and sustained while allegedly having players and coaches provide cash incentives for injuring opponents from 2009-11 might seem a fair trade when viewing things through a prism of wins and losses. But if in Week 13 of the 2012 season the Saints are 4-8 and out of the playoff hunt, do we think there will be a lot of reminiscing about the good old days (well, not that old)?

Then again, if the Saints are 8-4 and well positioned for a playoff berth by Week 13, that arrogance the NFL says the organization flouted in the bounty years (and during the ensuing investigation) will be dwarfed. New Orleans and its deeply loyal supporters will claim there is nothing that can be done to a franchise too strong to be messed with.

Having spent a lot of time in the Saints' locker room over the past few years, there's no doubt the team will rally, claiming that everyone is out to get them. They'll never be short on effort or heart. If $1,500 was motivation to make big plays from 2009-2011, how will this team react to having its talented head coach and long-time defensive leader taken away for an entire season (among many other punishments) and overall integrity soiled? Incentive to succeed will be unbridled.

The question, though, is this: Will the Saints have enough mental wherewithal to get through this uncharted landscape?

Losing Vilma for the entire 2012 campaign strips the team of its defensive heart. Sure, New Orleans has safeguarded itself by signing three linebackers, headed by Curtis Lofton, as insurance for Vilma. Still, as important as Drew Brees is to the Saints' offense, Vilma is that important to the defense in terms of smarts, leadership and respect. Meanwhile, Smith is the team's best pass rusher up front and, although it doesn't seem so cool right now, its enforcer. During Smith's suspension, the Saints will take on Washington, Carolina, Kansas City and Green Bay. Think New Orleans might miss its best pass rusher against Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers?

Take Patrick Willis and Justin Smith off the 49ers or Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs off the Ravens for even a game ... You get the point: The Saints will be weakened significantly. Tough situation for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to walk into.

Teams have had backup players successfully fill roles when starters have been hurt, as the Packers proved in their most recent Super Bowl run. However, this will put even more pressure on quarterback Drew Brees and that offense to outscore teams.

There also is no way to understate the loss of head coach Sean Payton. Though Brees is the players' leader, Payton is the team's leader. Players and coaches move to his direction and there's no way of replacing that. Football-wise, other than Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy, there might not be a more creative play designer or cut-throat play caller in the NFL than Payton.

Assistant head coach Joe Vitt should be fine organizing things in the offseason, but the change to someone else when he begins his six-game (seven-week) suspension adds another layer of questions. What if the Saints have a winning record under Aaron Kromer, Spagnuolo or Pete Carmichael while Vitt is gone? What kind of role would Vitt take on upon return? If he's reinstated as head man, it could jolt continuity. If he returns as linebacker coach, it defangs his juice -- and puts the guy calling the shots in somewhat of an awkward position.

As someone with the Saints told me, they're going to bow their heads and do what they have to do organizationally because none of the other 31 teams or their players will feel sorry for them.

But clearly, they're as vulnerable as they've been in years.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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