NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton is back. He was kind of hoping nobody noticed.
When Payton reappeared on the Saints’ sideline this preseason, pregame introductions went on without any mention of the reinstated coach over the Superdome’s public address system.
To many in New Orleans, it would have been fitting to provide fans who’d remained loyal to Payton during his bounty ban a choreographed opportunity to howl in his support. But as quarterback Drew Brees said of his coach, “He didn’t want that.”
“He just wants to make it about football and about winning and about preparing the team,” Brees said. “We just all want (Payton’s suspension) to be behind us. That was last chapter. We’re in the new chapter.”
Payton appreciates that the overriding story line of the 2013 Saints will be his return to coaching. That football fans everywhere are eager to see the difference the return of a head coach can make to a team that went 7-9 and missed the playoffs a season ago.
“I get it, because it’s a little bit unprecedented,” Payton said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. But the coach added that if he had his way, the focus wouldn’t be on him.
“I’ve said this to our players: Teams are made up of large groups of players and coaches that are committed to the good of the common cause,” Payton said. “I don’t buy into the idea that, ‘Well, now the head coach is back and they’ll be back to contending right away.’ There’s no evidence of that.
“What we have to go by is 7-9, a defense that didn’t play well in a lot of areas; offensively, we turned the ball over and were one-dimensional; and in the kicking game, we weren’t good enough,” Payton continued. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and if we’re able to have success this season, it won’t be because I was back.”
The attention on Payton’s return stems from the Saints’ 37-11 regular-season record spanning the three seasons before his suspension. New Orleans also went to the playoffs three straight seasons, winning the franchise’s only Super Bowl at the end of the 2009 campaign.
Yet Payton downplays it “because this team is going to earn what it gets. It’s a dangerous slope when you begin to say, ‘This is what they were in ‘11 and what they were in ‘10 and what they were in ‘09. There’s more than half the (current) roster that wasn’t here in those seasons.”
According to the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, Payton was punished for a lack of institutional control. The league said Payton failed to heed an NFL directive to stop a bounty program administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. The program rewarded big and sometimes injurious hits with cash payments from a player-funded pool.
Payton, who issued a public apology in the matter last year, does not criticize Goodell directly. But when the coach talks about how hard it was to be cut off from contact with all of his friends in the NFL during his suspension, the implication is he believed his punishment was unjust.
In the first weeks of his suspension, Payton said he was “angry, bitter, very upset in a lot of ways, just knowing what I knew and how things unfolded.”
In time, however, those feelings subsided and he tried to seize the chance to do things a coach normally can’t, such as coaching his son’s sixth-grade football team and getting in better physical shape.
Payton also watched Saints games on television, giving him some new perspectives on football and his team. He paid particular attention to players’ body language and demeanor when cameras panned to the sideline.
“You begin to see the personality of your team ... maybe clearer from afar than it would be from in the bunker,” Payton said. “When you step away, you get a little different feel.”
Payton does not say whether he believes he was misled or betrayed by Williams. Rather, he politely declined to answer any questions about Williams.
Williams, now a senior defensive assistant in Tennessee, said he was “very happy” to see Payton back in the NFL.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever coached with,” Williams said. “He’s one of the best offensive minds in the league.”
Payton took his first head coaching job in New Orleans in 2006, and since then, the offense he created has led the league four times and never ranked lower than sixth. The Saints’ 2011 offense set numerous NFL records, including total net yards (7,474) and yards passing (5,476 by Brees).
“Sean Payton is one of the best head coaches in this league for a reason,” Brees said. “He’s a great motivator. He’s a great teacher. He’s a great communicator.”
When players discuss Payton’s return, they often mention his attention to detail.
“Nothing goes unnoticed,” tight end Jimmy Graham said.
Middle linebacker Curtis Lofton described a “tightly run ship,” as well as high-tempo practices in which the tone is set by Payton’s overt competitiveness as he oversees the offense during 11-on-11 drills.
“He’s aggressive. He talks stuff to the defense,” Lofton said. “He’s a great motivator, too.”
The Saints open the regular season Sept. 8 at home against Atlanta, the same team they beat in their 2006 home opener, which marked the club’s emotional return to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — and the first home game of the Payton era.
This time, the Superdome crowd will be energized by an urge to rally around the reinstated coach. Payton said he welcomes the fan support, but his mind won’t be on his past troubles, as much as they may have affected him.
“You experience something like that — hey, you know — you’re different,” Payton said of the bounty scandal. “But it’s not going to be what motivates or drives our train. That’s behind us.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org