For 27 years Rick Venturi had just about every job on the defensive side of the ball you could imagine in the NFL. He was a position coach, assistant head coach and a defensive coordinator in the league, but he has a unique perspective on what awaits Saints linebackers coach and assistant head coach Joe Vitt as he enters his first phase as the team’s interim head coach for 2012.
On two occasions, in 1991 with the Indianapolis Colts and in 1996 with the New Orleans Saints, Venturi had to step in as an interim head coach and he has great knowledge and strong thoughts on what awaits Joe Vitt and the Saints coaching staff as they embark on a unique and unprecedented walk into the 2012 NFL season.
Venturi, now a sportstalk host on WXOS radio with Zach McCritel in St. Louis, says he knows Joe Vitt very well and what he will have to quickly establish as the head coach.
“I know Joe (Vitt) very well and in many ways his coaching career has mirrored my own,” Venturi said. “Joe is a tough guy, enthusiastic and motivated each day, he’s been a “lifer” sort of speak as an assistant and in many places in a position of authority and he is an old school coach. It is said many times, but it is not a right, but a privilege to play or coach in this league and Joe represents that as much as anyone. Where I think he will have a leg up on most interim coaches is the fact that he has done it before and he is not taking over a bad team. Joe is taking over a very good New Orleans Saints football team and one of the elite players in the game in Drew Brees.”
Venturi says experience running a team under crisis and having time to plan out the small details that goes along with running an NFL squad is in Vitt’s favor.
“Most times when you take over a team as an interim guy you have inherited a team in crisis and they are really bad teams,” Venturi said. “The Saints have had a lot of adversity this off-season, but they are really talented and I really feel the road to win the NFC South will still have to pass through New Orleans.”
“You normally have a week or if you catch a bye week, maybe 10 to 12 days to prepare for a game as a head coach, but in Joe’s case and having a very experienced staff around him, it is an entire offseason and that it will make it easier. Joe Vitt having done this before, when he did to fill in for Mike Martz when he had health issues in St. Louis, will help him. Despite maybe the record not showing it I was a lot better coach in New Orleans than I was in Indianapolis. When I got my first shot with the Colts it was a dress rehearsal sort of speak for me and being a hometown guy, if we would have had success, I might have had a shot to be the head coach the following year. In New Orleans I knew I was the caretaker for someone else. I didn’t have issues in New Orleans like I did in Indianapolis. In New Orleans we were a team in transition, we had lost some very talented defensive players and we didn’t have a lot of playmakers on offense, but we were a disciplined team. That was just the type player Jim Mora would have on his team, but we just weren’t real talented. Joe Vitt will understand how to handle things better in New Orleans based on his experience in St. Louis and what happened last season for a short stretch in New Orleans when Sean Payton was injured.”
Venturi said that despite the talk of Joe Vitt being a substitute coach or caretaker when the practices and games start, someone has to be the leader of the New Orleans Saints without Sean Payton running the football show.
“All that talk is for the fans and the media about being a substitute coach or warming the seat for Sean (Payton), and you can say it is Sean’s team, it is his system, his schedule and his way of football life, but as the head coach you have to establish yourself as the leader immediately. That team has to know you are in charge from Day One. That leadership role on the field and off the field has to be filled and that responsibility falls on Joe Vitt. Once the football bullets start to get fired you can’t turn to Sean and ask what to do next. Joe understands that better than anyone and it will be on his shoulders to be the leader. You need to make sure that everyone in the building understands you are in charge and that is from the practice field, to the staffroom, to the weightroom and then on gameday. Someone has to grasp that leadership void and there will come times if you are making a critical third down call or what to do on fourth and short, when to throw the challenge flag, situational spots to insert players or if it is off the field problems or player personal issues, the players need to know you are in charge. You have to establish a system on a daily basis to have the players know you are the boss. If it is for 2 weeks, 6 weeks or 16 games the most important thing for Joe Vitt, and if it is Aaron Kromer or Pete Carmichael or whoever runs the team when Joe isn’t there, has to be something set in place to firmly establish a leadership base. There can’t be a leadership void on this team when Joe Vitt is not there for the first six weeks. It has to be established and put in stone that there is a boss on this team.”
Venturi says that the one assistant coach that will have his role changed more than anyone is offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr.
“I believe that Sean Payton is the most talented state of the art offensive coach in the game today. There is no one that can create mismatches, find the open spots in a defense and put a rhythm in place like he can today. Pete did a very good job in his absence when Payton injured his leg last season, but now that responsibility falls on Carmichael for 16 games and maybe more, if you get into the playoffs. It is no longer a short term position. Pete was the buffer guy between two real strong personalities in Sean Payton and Drew Brees and he played that complimentary role as well as you could, but now the way this team is built around this high powered offense and Brees it will be Carmichael’s role that will change the most. He is no longer the “buffer” guy and he now becomes the guy to make those critical offensive calls. No compromise position now. He is the man called upon to drive the offensive train now and there is no doubt about it.”
Venturi still spends a lot of time watching film in doing his job in sportstalk radio and he kept a close eye on new Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo when he was the head coach with the St. Louis Rams.
“I am not sure Sean Payton could have done any better selecting a defensive coordinator than Steve Spagnuolo. He didn’t have great talent at St. Louis on defense, but I am telling you that he kept opposing offensive coordinators up at night because of his scheme. He is aggressive, very creative and in many ways he wants to attack the quarterback like Gregg Williams did, but with some subtle differences. He will try and find different angles to attack the quarterback, but you can’t change your style because of what happened this off-season. In this game you have to be smart on defense, but you also have to be very physical, fundamentally sound and find a way to disrupt the opposing teams’ passing rhythm. You can’t let these talented quarterbacks throw the ball over the field without giving them different looks, a little different way to get pressure on them and you have to get turnovers when the opportunity comes your way. Steve has an attack personality, but right now he has to figure out which personnel mix works right out on the field. The other thing that is important to remember is that no matter what a player says if he believes in that the scheme he is playing is giving the team the best chance to succeed they will play harder. Sometimes that light comes on at different times for defenses, but if you put some doubt in their minds, it might be subliminal, but they won’t go all out for you. Once you have them sold and certainly talent is important, they will play real hard for you on a weekly basis.”
Venturi says the Bountygate issue and other players feelings that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was too harsh on the Saints will not have any effect on play out on the field defensively for New Orleans.
“Once the regular season starts and it is for real no one will feel sorry for you and you have to be a very tough and physical defensive team. Everyone has their own problems to deal with on and off the field and while the Saints were headline makers it won’t mean anything to someone else. It’s like that Travis Tritt song, “Here’s a Quarter and Call Someone Who Cares.” With the additions at linebacker of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne I know they will be better at linebacker and a more physical group. Despite everything the New Orleans Saints are still a very good football team. The issue now for the Saints is to focus on football work, establish a leadership base and sign Drew Brees to a longterm contract.”