MOBILE, Ala. — You know what they say about the coaching bug — it’s tough to shake, especially when you haven’t done it for a while. So it was for New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, who was at the Senior Bowl in Mobile on Wednesday, one day after he was reinstated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season in March for his alleged part in the Saints’ bounty scandal, but with former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturning all player suspensions in a recent appeal decision, and the Super Bowl to be played in New Orleans in less than two weeks time, it was certainly an expeditious time for Goodell to invite Payton back into the fray — and perhaps defray the anger of a city that will not welcome him with open arms at all.
For Payton, whose closest foray into football during his suspension was coaching his sixth-grade son’s team, it was just good to be back in the league, back scouting players, and back to work in a general sense.
”We’re at a point where it’s time for closure. It’s time for us as a team, it’s time for us as a league, to take this next step forward,” Payton told the media on Wednesday. He said that he believed Goodell would receive a gracious welcome in New Orleans, which strains credulity to the extreme, but the coach doesn’t want to do anything more to offend the man who holds his future in his hands, and has been rather chesty about it from the start.
“I’m excited to be back, and certainly, to get back into a routine is a big priority right now,” Payton said. “Because there’s a lot we have to do. I really appreciate the time I was able to spend with the Commissioner on Monday — we met for 4 1/2 hours, and we had the chance to cover a lot of topics. Being reinstated now, with all that’s going on — you guys understand that as soon as the season ends, there’s a lot of work that begins towards the next year.”
That work will start for Payton and his staff in Mobile, and it will also be about re-connecting and making sure everyone is on the same page. Apart from his ability to watch quarterback Drew Brees break Johnny Unitas’ NFL record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, and limited discussion time with team owner Tom Benson about that eventually became a five-year contract extension, the Saints organization has been off-limits to Payton.
“It was difficult,” Payton said of that time looking through the bars, so to speak. ” I found myself in a routine on gameday. I would get the coach’s cut [film copy] in the middle of the week. I had that available. So, I had that available. But like anything else you’re watching from afar, there are certain things you would see, and it became, at times, frustrating. I will say this, though — with the situation as unique and unprecedented as it was, I’m thankful to the staff. I’m thankful to Aaron Kromer’s contributions as he had to move into that position. I’m thankful to Joe Vitt, and he’s been a tremendous ally, supporter, and close friend.
“The players and coaches all went through something that was different, so there’s this mixed emotion. You understand, as you watch from afar, the early struggles. People would ask, “How do you feel?” and you feel frustrated. The amount of time to spend together with your players and fellow coaches is extraordinary. They’re like your family in a lot of ways, and you want to see them do well.”
Payton said, however, that the hardest part of the separation from the Saints really didn’t have to do with football.
“So many people that we’re talking about — [general manager] Mickey Loomis, [team owner] Tom Benson, and a number of the players — you’re used to talking with them on a regular basis. So, the more difficult part for me was not having the personal interaction, and not necessarily football-related. As you would [with] a friend.”
Payton filled that hole in his life to a great degree by coaching the Liberty Christian Warriors, the Dallas-area team of sixth-graders quarterbacked by his son, Connor.
“That ended up being something that … Tuesdays and Thursdays were our practices, we played on Saturdays, we got to the Super Bowl, but we lost that game,” Payton recalled. “I needed the players on that team more than they needed me. That was something that was a completely different perspective on how parents and people look at the game.”
Outside of scouting players during practices, the onus is now on Payton to continue a recovery from a situation that no coach before him has ever had to experience. That started in meetings with the Saints’ coaching staff this afternoon. Kromer, who served as the team’s interim head coach after Vitt (who originally replaced Payton) served his own suspension, moved on to the Chicago Bears’ staff. Other than that, it’s a lot of the same people in a very different place. No way to avoid that after nearly a year apart.
“The unique thing is that we’ve got a gap here before the we see the players again,” he said on Wednesday morning. “But we’ve got a ton of challenges, and a ton of work. This meeting we’re going to have this afternoon is going to be painful as we go through, and we’ve got a lot of tough meetings coming. It is what it is, and that’s what 7-9 is. These are our big challenges.”
At least, those are the Saints’ big challenges right now. In the long term, the real challenge will be to re-establish a culture of winning on a team that has had, perhaps, the ultimate culture shock over the last 10 months.