The moment the stadium clock at Raymond James Stadium showed zeros, it was over. The New Orleans Saints beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 35-28 Oct. 21, but what the game clock really signified was completion of the six-game, seven-week suspension of Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt.
Vitt wasted no time getting back in the swing. He went to Tampa, Fla., so he could fly home with his team. It's that kind of dedication that has earned him respect not only inside the locker room, but also among his peers and the media.
His 30-plus years of coaching experience are what the Saints have desperately lacked this season. A 0-4 start is plausible proof that the Black and Gold really missed Vitt, who commands a room and runs media sessions with a mixture of comedy improv and football 101.
"We know there are things we can do better from a coaching, player and schematic standpoint," Vitt told reporters last week in his first press conference since training camp. The statement referred to a chat Vitt had with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
"It's good to have coach Vitt back," Saints running back Pierre Thomas tweeted Oct. 24 in reply to an official Saints tweet that showed Thomas and Vitt sharing a laugh at practice.
It wasn't that offensive line coach and running game coordinator Aaron Kromer did a bad job as acting head coach. What is key is what Vitt brings to the team.
"I love Joe," Saints quarterback Drew Brees says. "His experience level, his intensity, his fire, his passion, I think those are the things that you immediately notice whether you know Joe Vitt or not and you appreciate and you love (about him). He is one of those guys that loves his players. He is hard on you at times; he expects a lot out of you, but it's because I think he sees the potential in everyone and the good in everybody. He wants to get the best out of you so he is going to push you hard.
"There are those times where you are out on the field and you're sweating and you might hate him for making you repeat nine reps in a row, but in the end you appreciate him because he is trying to get the best out of you, and you know that if you're going in a foxhole you want that guy with you."
The Saints are trying to become the second team in NFL history to reach the postseason following a 0-4 start. The San Diego Chargers pulled it off in 1992. Vitt inherits a team that appears to play better football and, perhaps as a side effect of the suspension, with a fresh perspective on things.
"Stepping away and then coming back, you see things from a different perspective," Brees says. "I have heard him on a couple of occasions make comments to me and others, (saying) 'Hey, I saw some things on TV or just from afar that I probably wouldn't have noticed otherwise, and here they are and I think this can help us. That's interesting when you get that perspective that you only would have gotten had you stepped away for a little while."
Vitt, just like Saints fans, likely saw a team that struggled on defense, had trouble getting the running game going, looked lost on offense early on, and at times lacked their signature passion. The Saints are improving, and one can only hope that Vitt's return will provide the missing piece that turns the Saints into the contender we all expected to see this season.
Can the Black and Gold make the playoffs? We'll see. After all, they are called the Saints, so why can't there be a miracle run into the postseason?