Lewis: Saints’ optimism returns with Payton back in the mix

The first time the black helicopter meandered over the Saints’ practice field, Sean Payton paid it no mind.

But when it returned a few minutes later, the reinstated coach paused long enough to check to see if it bore a Falcons insignia or something.

Yep, he’s back.

And with him comes the feeling that, after a year of Bountygate fatigue, interim coaches who felt like substitute teachers and a general lingering sense of uncertainty, things are again right with the Black and Gold. Or at least they’re getting that way.

“It’s a lot different,” four-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans said as the Saints wrapped up their first week of organized team activities Thursday. “We’ve got the guy back you know is going to put the hammer down in certain situations. Everything feels more stable.”

Second-year defensive end Akiem Hicks feels it, too.

“There was nothing bad about the way we were coached last year,” he said. “But this is a different vibe. The older guys are more excited, more into it. There’s no more dark clouds lingering over us.”

Of course, in the NFL, everybody feels good in the spring. And while Payton’s return certainly is a boost, going from 7-9 to the Super Bowl isn’t automatic.

Still, there’s a consensus that last season was an aberration and that the Saints of 2013 are going to be a lot more like the Saints of 2011 — when they came within a shootout loss at San Francisco of playing for the NFC championship — than the Saints of 2012, who couldn’t stop anybody and never were on the same page offensively.

“We’ve definitely got the talent to be in the playoffs year in and year out,” Evans said. “So we’re definitely disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Our goal is to get back to where we were before.”

It could happen. Early indications are that Rob Ryan is bringing the Gregg Williams swagger back to the defense without any of the hubris that led to the pay-for-performance debacle.

Certainly the returning players seem relieved to have the Steve Spagnuolo, “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude behind them.

Drafting Kenny Vaccaro and John Jenkins and signing free agents Keenan Lewis and Victor Butler shores up the defense. Drew Brees can only benefit from having his quarterback whisperer reminding him that he doesn’t have to carry the team on his shoulders every play. The running game will stabilize with three backs sharing the duties instead of four, and there are young receivers like Joe Morgan and Nick Toon ready to step up.

It’s not all sunny. Presumptive left tackle Charles Brown’s inability to stay healthy is a concern. Holding him out of Thursday’s practice for what Payton called a “weight-room related injury” has Nervous Nellies wringing their hands.

As Payton pointed out when asked about another subject, “Shoot, it’s May.”

But do keep an eye on those helicopters. The other guys might be up to something.