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Lost Leadership: The Removal of Veterans is Haunting the New Orleans Saints Defense

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Dec 30, 2012; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Jonathan Vilma (51) celebrates with teammates defensive end Will Smith (91) and New defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) after scoring a touchdown on an interception off Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (not pictured) during second quarter of their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is a business, and sometimes business decisions need to be made.  You’ve got to trim the unwanted fat from the good meat.  I think we all know what, or who I’m talking about.

Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis cleaned up shop over the offseason, releasing veterans like Jonathan Vilma, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Will Smith, Lance Moore, Darren Sproles and Malcolm Jenkins, who were staples to the New Orleans Saints organization.

That was all for what we thought was good reason at the time — paying Jimmy Graham, and signing elite free safety Jairus Byrd, who has missed a majority of the year after suffering a season-ending knee injury in early October, all while trying to keep the team under the cap.

Yes, the production of those removed veterans was not like it was once was, and injuries were a bit of a concern as well.  However, excluding QB Drew Brees, those guys owned the locker room.  Their presence as leaders outweighed their performance on the field, but unfortunately, that does not cut it.

We’ll go ahead and knock Sproles and Moore out of that category.  Keeping them fixed into the offense as exceptional weapons for Brees would have been crucial.  Finding a replacement for Jenkins was necessary.

Vilma, Harper, Smith and Greer were all struggling to stay healthy thanks to wear and tear that comes along with growing older in the NFL.  I think after signing Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, we all knew Vilma’s days were limited.

When healthy, Will Smith’s production was way down from before.  A strong rookie performance in 2013 by safety Kenny Vaccaro likely meant the Big Easy has seen the last of Harper.  CB Jabari Greer was outplayed by newcomer Keenan Lewis, and later in the year suffered a knee injury, ending his season and eventually his tenure with the Black and Gold.

For the Who Dat Nation, it was heartbreaking to part ways with the guys that helped lead their franchise to its first ever Super Bowl title.  Whether they were fan favorites or just guys who got the job done, it was certainly a tough offseason for both players and followers.

At the end of the day, it was time for the Saints to get younger, faster, stronger and just overall better.  Unfortunately, that has not been the case in 2014.  In fact, it’s been miscommunication all year long, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  I, along with many others, believe it’s all starting to point towards lack of leadership and maturity.

I’m excluding defensive captain Curtis Lofton, who is having his best season (127 total tackles through 13 games) since taking his talents to Southeast Louisiana after a four-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans’ division foes.  He may be the only Saint worthy of a Pro Bowl this year due to consistency — I won’t exclude CB Keenan Lewis just yet.

Eliminating Lofton from the equation, I genuinely haven’t noticed a step-up by anybody else to fill those leadership roles abandoned by Vilma, Harper and Big Willie Style (Smith).

OLB Junior Galette was thrown the captain’s patch before the new season kicked off, which I felt was a good decision.  However, unprofessional comments directed towards his former teammates has caused many to believe that his maturity level isn’t that of a true leader.

For those of you that don’t know, Galette said the Saints’ replacements were better players “across the board” than the ones I’ve listed above.  Maybe he was acting as a confidence booster, but in my book, that’s just a kick in the face to the guys who helped mold him into what he is today.

Pro-Bowl DE Cam Jordan went ahead and predicted a Black and Gold Super Bowl in Arizona in February while also informing the media that he would finish the year with 16 sacks, averaging one per game.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with confidence, but too much can be a bad thing.  Instead of making predictions for the future, players should focus on the present.  By the way, Jordan has been an absolute disappointment this season.

Kenny Vaccaro, Harper’s replacement at strong safety, had an exceptional rookie year, but seems to have fallen into a bit of a sophomore slump.  He’s not a leader, he’s too physical and has had problems adapting to the Saints style of play on defense.  Physicality is certainly not a bad thing, but when it causes you to miss tackles and get penalties, it hurts the entire team.

Apparently, the Saints have acknowledged Vaccaro about his mistakes, but he has failed to comply.  This could be the reason why Coach Payton has decided to bench his second-year defensive back for Monday night’s contest versus the Chicago Bears.

I’m not going to sit here and point out ever player’s squeeze, because there is no telling what’s really going on unless you’re present in the locker room or out on the field.  It’s obvious that chemistry is a problem.  I do believe the lack of leadership is apparent, and I do believe situations like that fall somewhat on coaching (Rob Ryan).  Your players must be controlled and disciplined properly, otherwise it will haunt you, which it has.  Vilma, Smith and Harper knew how to do that — they had voices and spoke up.

Essentially, the New Orleans Saints are clearly missing their veterans on and off the field.  I’m not saying that the right decisions weren’t made, but it is certainly tough to immediately rebound from such big losses.  This upcoming season should be interesting, so keep your seat belts fastened and tray tables up — we’re in for a bumpy ride.

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