If there’s one thing that defines Kenny Vaccaro, it’s his love for football.
As he tells it, he spends the majority of his evenings watching tape of himself and his upcoming opponent. After games, he rushes home to immediately digest the tape. He’s also known to spend countless hours watching draft prospects to form his own thoughts on the next crop of players entering the league.
Ask him why, and he’ll tell you it’s because he’s a football player. This is what he does.
That’s why it was so shocking to listen to him explain what led to him being called into Saints coach Sean Payton’s office earlier this week — a meeting that led to sources telling multiple news outlets that Vaccaro had been benched from his starting role at safety.
“I wouldn’t say I got complacent,” Vaccaro said. “That dog in me ... it started back (during training camp) at The Greenbrier. I forgot where I came from, like how hard it was for me to get here, how much my family went through.
“I support everyone in my family. That’s always driven me. How dare I let up at all — especially in my second year.”
It’s undeniable that something happened this week. Payton denies that Vaccaro will be benched against the Chicago Bears on Monday night and called the reports extremely inaccurate. But it is possible that Payton is taking issue with the way things are being described, and he refused to answer when asked whether Vaccaro’s role would be changing.
If that’s the case, and Vaccaro is replaced in the starting lineup, it might not make much of a difference. Payton said he still expects the safety to play a major role this week.
“He’s going to play a ton for us,” Payton said. “The role he plays — I’ll leave it at that. I would say it’s very inaccurate.”
Payton continued: “He is going to obviously be a huge factor for us in this game, so the idea we’re putting him on the bench is a little silly.”
Still, it’s undeniable the Saints are unhappy with how Vaccaro has played in recent weeks. One play Vaccaro pointed toward as an example of failure was a 69-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Stewart during Sunday’s 41-10 loss to Carolina Panthers.
On the play, Vaccaro failed to set the edge and let a blocker take him out of the play, which allowed Stewart to get free for the touchdown. The issue, Vaccaro said, was that he became too eager to make a play.
“I’m playing on fire sometimes,” Vaccaro said. “You can’t play on fire. You got to toss some water out there. You got to be more patient.”
This was something Vaccaro said he needed. He’s been disappointed with his play this season. Part of that, he says, is that he’s never played strong safety until this season.
While at Texas and during his rookie season with the Saints, he spent the majority of his time covering the slot. He’s not used to standing back and seeing the field. At times, he said, he’s felt like a rookie waiting for everything to click.
If the Saints decide to move Vaccaro back to covering the slot — a position he excelled in last season — he said he would be fine with that.
“If I’m better at nickel right now, if I can help the team win at nickel, then I’m playing nickel,” Vaccaro said. “I don’t care if it’s first, second or third down — if that’s what they want me to do.”
For whatever reason, it hasn’t clicked yet for him this season, and he’s waiting impatiently. But he’s glad this happened. It’s what he needed to become refocused and snap out of the funk he has fallen into this season.
“I can’t put my finger on what it was,” Vaccaro said when asked why he felt like he wasn’t playing up to par. “I needed that. Coach Payton basically changed my career with that meeting.”
The greater hope for the Saints is that Payton’s recent string of moves and actions this week will save their season. Along with meeting with Vaccaro, Payton reportedly spoke with at least 10 other members of the team about their performance.
New Orleans also released wide receiver Joe Morgan and tried out four other kickers to apparently put Shayne Graham on notice after the incumbent missed a field goal against Carolina. The locker room noticed that a message was being sent.
“I think sitting at home on a day off and seeing changes being made puts everybody on high alert,” right tackle Zach Strief said. “I don’t think there’s much that needs to be said. I think that practice was a reflection of everyone gets it. There’s not much to say to understand the severity of the situation.”
There’s no question the message was delivered to Vaccaro. For whatever reason, he lost some of his direction this season. And that’s unsettling to him. While speaking with reporters, he seemed bothered and motivated by what was happening.
At one point he even mentioned the trailer he grew up in as a child. The image represents something to him. There’s little chance it will happen, but his reason for bringing it up was clear. He needs to get it together or he could end up back in that place, and he wouldn’t just be letting himself down.
No, Vaccaro wants something much greater for himself. And so does his coach.
“He wants me to be the Pro Bowl, Hall of Famer,” Vaccaro said. “I’m telling you, that’s what he told me. If you have the talent, why not go get it? It’d be different if I wasn’t physically able to reach those heights. If not, it’s just a waste. He just wants me to get there.”
There are some fires you just don’t throw water on.