Sean Payton will have a lot of business to take care of at noon Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But the New Orleans Saints coach could be forgiven if he takes a few moments to reflect before the season opener kicks off.
No one, not even Payton with his single-minded focus, can ignore the fact that his first real game back after an NFL-imposed one-season suspension is against the same team — the one the Who Dats love to hate the most, the Atlanta Falcons — that Payton faced in his first home game as an NFL head coach seven years ago.
Now, let’s get one thing perfectly clear: This game, no game, can ever match the 23-3 win that marked the reopening of the Superdome a year after Hurricane Katrina — but this one stands out in its own way. Payton is back, and there isn’t a better storyline on this kickoff weekend.
The most successful Saints coach ever would be justified in taking a moment to look at the middle of the field where Deuce McAllister three times willed himself to fourth-quarter first downs against Philadelphia, making a winner of Payton in his first playoff game as a head coach and giving New Orleans its first victory in a divisional playoff game after the 2006 season.
He might turn toward the south tunnel and recall Reggie Bush sprinting through there to midfield carrying one of the baseball bats Payton had given the players for inspiration before the divisional game against Arizona after the 2009 season. Bush’s two dazzling touchdowns in that 45-14 victory might well come to mind also.
Payton might glance up at the roof, as he famously did a week after Bush’s heroics, and reflect on the holes and subsequent leaking that had to be fixed after Katrina.
He might look beyond the goal posts in the Girod Street end zone where he told place-kicker Garrett Hartley to “hit the bleeping fleur-de-lis” that was painted on the facing of the loge dead center between the uprights moments before Hartley kicked New Orleans into Super Bowl XLIV.
He’ll try not to think about the fact that he will be back on a sideline in a real game for the first time in 20 months, when he had the Saints one stop away from another trip to an NFC Championship Game in the Superdome.
That stop of the San Francisco 49ers never came, though, as the unit coordinated by Gregg Williams — the central figure in the ill-conceived bountygate scandal and subsequent cover-up that landed Payton on Roger Goodell’s Elba for a season — crumbled in the final moments.
So there’s a lot of history here.
Ultimately, Payton will be grounded in the here and now. It will be the Falcons — the defending NFC South champions, a franchise against which he is 10-2 — that will occupy his mind.
No one knows how much of a difference Payton’s presence would have made last season, when a perceived Super Bowl contender stumbled to a 7-9 record while being led by the tag team of Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt.
But things are back to normal now and, if you look closely at developments since Payton’s reinstatement Jan. 22, you might be reminded a bit of the offseason leading up to 2009.
Payton seems to be committed now as he was then to cultivating a more viable running game to help Drew Brees and the defense.
After the 2008 season, Payton replaced defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs with Williams, deciding a more aggressive approach that would yield more sacks and turnovers was necessary to get the Saints the Lombardi Trophy.
Although Williams’ tenure ended so badly in so many ways, his contribution in 2009 was inarguably significant.
Now along comes Rob Ryan and another aggressive scheme in hopes of upgrading a defensive unit that yielded the most yards in NFL history last season.
If there was any doubt how impatient and determined Payton is to get this team back to where it was when he left it, that was erased by the quickness with which he dismissed Steve Spagnuolo after just one season as defensive coordinator.
Though it’s still questionable whether this group can duplicate what the 2009 team did — or even what the 2011 team did — this opener encompasses everything this franchise has become in the past eight years as it was transformed from a nondescript organization into a model one:
This game, like every other home game since Payton’s arrival, is sold out on season tickets. And New Orleans is universally considered, at the least, a serious playoff contender.
When the game kicks off, finally the guy most responsible for all of that will be back on the west sideline where he belongs, thinking not about what was or what could have been but about what might yet be.