MOBILE, Ala. — A day after being reinstated from a season-long bounty suspension, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton strode confidently into Ladd-Peebles Stadium on a sunny Wednesday morning, rolled up his sleeves and went back to work.
Payton arrived just before 9:30 a.m. to take in the Senior Bowl practice, trailing General Manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt into the stadium by about five minutes.
Clutching a large cup of coffee, Payton was alone in the spotlight as he came through the stadium gates and walked past several reporters and a row of about six TV cameras focused on him after being reinstated Tuesday by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Payton immediately walked up the ramps of the stadium, eventually making his way to the seating section occupied by Loomis and Vitt as well as his coaching staff and player personnel department.
After greeting everyone with smiles and a hearty round of handshakes, Payton settled in to watch the North team’s workout. The South practiced Wednesday afternoon.
Two hours later, Payton took questions from at least 40 reporters, speaking candidly for 45 minutes on a number of topics before heading out.
“I’m excited to be back,” Payton said in his opening statement. “Certainly, getting back into the routine is big. Right now, there’s a lot that we have to do.”
A contrite Payton spoke about his 41/2-hour meeting with Goodell on Monday in New York City, after which Goodell made the decision to let Payton return early. He was originally scheduled to be back on Feb. 4, the day after Super Bowl XLVII.
Payton said he has a good relationship with Goodell, who suspended him last March for misleading investigators looking into a pay-for-performance program that Goodell said targeted opposing players with the intent to knock them out of games.
Goodell said the league’s investigation showed as many as 27 defensive players put money into and received cash rewards from a pool administered by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Only four players were suspended, including Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the season and defensive end Will Smith for four games. Their suspensions, along with those of ex-teammates Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, were vacated last month by retired NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
Vitt has vigorously denied Saints players aimed to harm opposing players and that the money from the pool was distributed for big plays and hard, legal hits.
Although not surprised by his early reinstatement, Payton was nonetheless grateful to be allowed to return now by Goodell and said it was important to put closure to the incident and move on to next season.
“As soon as the season ends, you have a lot to do for next year,” said Payton, whose team finished 7-9 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. “It’s helpful for us because we have a lot to do.”
Payton, who did very few interviews after being suspended, said the first two or three weeks were the toughest to get over because the Saints began their offseason program the day he was forced to leave.
“It’s the time that you’re getting into the routine of football,” he said. “You have to temper your emotions.
“The most important thing was making sure I was dotting the Is and crossing the Ts (with NFL officials) because I wanted to make sure that nothing ever jeopardized my reinstatement.”
Once the season started, Payton said he had a difficult time because he found himself trying to get into his game-day routine.
Naturally, he said he missed the games and competition quite a bit. Included were the coaches and friends in the profession he’s built relationships with.
Another thing was the daily interaction he became accustomed to over the years with Loomis, Vitt, Saints owner Tom Benson and players like quarterback Drew Brees, Vilma and Smith.
“The time you spend with them, it’s special because they’re like family,” Payton said. “You want to see them do well, you want to see them have success.”
Payton was asked about the Saints’ 0-4 start, their first since 2007, and how tough it was to see his defense give up a single-season NFL record of 7,042 yards before it was finally over.
“I was watching it from afar,” he said, “but certainly, there were things you see at times that became frustrating.”
After acknowledging his coaches and players had to deal with an unprecedented set of circumstances, it didn’t help that people kept asking how frustrated he was — especially during their early struggles.
When asked how much his absence had to do with the losing record, Payton ticked off a list of their biggest woes — giving up too many yards on defense, not running the ball well early in the season, and poor special teams play.
“I think,” he said before pausing for several seconds, “when you play the way we played defense, it’s hard to win. When you struggle running the ball the way we did, you’re not going to win. When you struggle on special teams — these things keep you from winning.”
On Wednesday night, Payton and the football operations staff were scheduled to evaluate the defensive side of the ball after the offense was covered Tuesday night as they continue to look for answers.
“We’ll look closely at the personnel and how we used them,” he said. “Most importantly, did we ask them to do what they do best — and did he do it? That’s the one thing that keeps me up at night.
“Right now, we have a ton of work to do,” added Payton, who noted there was no chance of him going anywhere when the contract extension he got in 2011 was voided before he signed a new deal this month. “It’s painful. There are a lot of things to do; that’s what 7-9 is. Those are our big challenges.”
Payton said he was recently reminded by his mentor, Bill Parcells, that it’s not going to be automatically better next season just because he’s back.
“You have to have the mindset that you may not win 11 games next year, you might win five games,” he said Parcells told him. “He’s right because we have a long ways to go. A lot goes into winning in this league.”
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