Saints leave fog of 2012

Now that it’s finally behind them, the Saints can look back and say the calendar year of 2012 was one they wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Not even those Dirty Birds from Atlanta.

The nightmare started Jan. 14 with a gut-wrenching divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers and mercifully ended 351 days later as the Saints became the worst defense in NFL history.

In between was a bounty scandal and myriad distractions that went with it — unprecedented suspensions of the head coach, interim coach and general manager (30 games in all) and an 0-4 start on the field that they never really recovered from in finishing 7-9.

Going into a new season, with Sean Payton back calling plays on offense and a new defensive coordinator and scheme, there’s a feeling the 2013 Saints are going to be more like the 2009 to 2011 teams that cranked out 41 victories — including a Super Bowl title.

But Payton will be the first to say it’s not that simple.

Their offseason work and preseason nearly complete, Payton says the Saints are building their own persona in a bid to return to the playoffs and make another run at the Super Bowl.

Obviously, he thinks they can get back to contender status quickly.

“Our players and coaches are wanting to be successful,” said Payton, who immediately started erasing the horrid images of the 2012 season when he fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and replaced him with Rob Ryan.

“This team is entirely different than the 2012 team or the ’11 or ’09 teams, and that’s a positive sign because it gives you a chance. If you don’t have that (mentality), then you don’t really have a chance. But the work ethic of this team throughout the offseason and their approach to training camp has been excellent.”

There are those who may point out that the 2013 season is mirroring the ’09 season, which ended with a victory in Super Bowl XLIV, in that Payton fired defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs after 7-9 and 8-8 seasons in 2007 and ’08. He hired Gregg Williams, who brought a swagger that played a key role in the franchise’s only Super Bowl championship.

This time, Ryan will get a shot at making sure the 3-4 scheme he installed complements the play of quarterback Drew Brees and his record-shattering offense.

“I’ve said this a number of times: We have to play better complementary football,” Payton said. “It think it’s still about fundamentals and wins and losses. That’s going to be important for us. We have to play better defense and be more opportunistic.”

Brees is all for that after watching the defense struggle mightily last season. Its downfall put more pressure on the offense and, while Brees threw for more than 5,000 yards for the third time in five seasons and had 43 touchdown passes, it wasn’t any fun.

“It’s all about wins and losses, and you want to win and put yourself in position to make a run during the postseason,” he said. “When you fall short of that, it’s disappointing. There are plenty of things that we can do, specifically on offense, to improve and get back to the playoffs. … I feel we still have all the pieces in place.”

Much like it was in 2009, when the Saints were coming off back-to-back disappointments after going to the 2006 NFC Championship game. With most of the offense returning, all they needed was a boost from the defense.

Some of the veterans who remain from the 2009 team recall how they were angry about what happened the previous two seasons and were intent on changing things — which led to a 13-0 start and eventually the Super Bowl win.

Free safety Malcolm Jenkins was a rookie in 2009 and came in as the team’s top draft pick. He said this year, in a way, is similar to that one because everyone was highly motivated after two nonplayoff seasons.

“If you look at our roster, from the top all the way down, everyone has something to prove this year as individuals ... and we have a lot to prove as a team,” he said. “I think everybody is very focused, very motivated.”

“I don’t think ‘angry’ is the word this season, but we are very focused,” Brees said. “We’re just locked in. I know that I’m on a mission. When I walked into training camp, it was all about football, and there was nothing swirling around us.”

That was a refreshing feeling for four-time All-Pro guard Jahri Evans, who remembered how the Saints approached the magical 2009 season.

“It kind of feels the way it did in ’09, but we still have to go out and do it,” he said. “We have guys that have been here and won a lot of ball games. We know the time is now. (Payton) is back, and it feels like all the pieces are coming together. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen on the field. We have to get better every game and go through the process.”

Right tackle Zach Strief agreed that it will be a process, but he likened it more to 2006, when Payton came in after the disastrous ’05 season that was marred by Hurricane Katrina.

“Every team is different, but this feels like ’06 in terms of having a clean slate,” he said. “Back then, everyone had to prove himself. That was Coach Payton’s mindset: Let’s wipe the slate clean and start anew.

“That’s what I’ve seen this year. It’s kind of like, ‘Let’s reprove ourselves, and let’s play the season and then see where we’re at.’ ”