It doesn’t matter whether you believe Payton's season-long suspension in 2012 for his role in the pay-to-injure scandal involving the Saints was the unnecessary flexing of commissioner Roger Goodell's muscles, was laughable or not steep enough.
What matters now is that the Saints and Payton must find a way to put the past behind and push through into a new season.
Working through Payton’s punishment last season wasn’t easy on the franchise nor the coach. Filling in for Payton was a revolving door of coaches that changed so frequently it had to be hard for the team to find a rhythm.
Linebackers coach Joe Vitt guided the Saints through training camp and the preseason until he had to serve a six-game suspension. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer—now the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears—stepped in for the start of the regular season until Vitt was able to re-join the team. Even general manager Mickey Loomis had to miss the first eight weeks of the season under suspension.
Not having a consistent leader in not having Payton was a burden that the Saints didn’t handle well. The proof was in their 0-4 start and their 7-9 final record.
Payton has been reinstated as the Saints front man and now has to direct his roster back towards the playoffs, but it won’t be easy.
Here are five monumental challenges facing Payton after his league-imposed season off.
The easiest response for both the New Orleans Saints and Sean Payton to his 2012 suspension is anger.
As the Saints head coach gets back to work in 2013, how can he, or his team, not reflect with rage on what transpired during the proceedings that led up to the season suspension that forced Payton to separate himself completely from the organization?
Payton told Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune that the first few weeks of the 2012 regular season were a whirlwind of emotions as he sat at home and watched the Saints on TV. The entire process hurt for Payton, but it was toughest in the beginning to contemplate “whether or not you thought it was fair or not.”:
So I think turning the page was important. It was very important. It's no different than what we teach our players when you feel like a call doesn't go your way. In other words, you're on to the next play. It was a much bigger scheme of thing, but had to be the same approach by me.
Payton must keep that mantra strong in 2013. While he must simply move on, he has to also instill that belief with his team.
The longer this Saints locker room dwells on what could have happened in 2012 had Payton been around or the injustice of the entire fiasco, the longer it will take for the healing process to fully begin.
Payton, his players and his coaching staff must forget about 2012 and leave the anger behind. That won’t be a simple task.
It was impossible for the New Orleans Saints to recover from their 0-4 start to the 2012 season.
The defense was horrible and the offense sputtered to get started. After losing its first four games of the season by an average score of less than a touchdown, New Orleans was unable to string together enough momentum to make it into the playoffs. Even a three-game winning streak and victories in five of the Saints' next six games following their 0-4 start wasn’t good enough.
If the Saints have a similar start to the 2013 season, the psyche of the entire organization could go off its rails.
NFL schedule-makers didn’t do Payton any favors by scheduling the Atlanta Falcons (13-3 last season) in Week 1 and the much-improved Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road for Week 2. The Saints have the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively, before traveling to face the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots on the road.
If the Saints have not tasted a good bit of success through their first six weeks of the schedule, that bye week in Week 7 could be a dismal experience.
It might be easy for the Saints to be lulled into a false sense of security now that Sean Payton is back.
I know I said that "Payton’s worth two to three wins once he returns to the sidelines" multiple times during his absence, and I believe he’s that good to warrant the statement.
However, the Saints still have to get to work.
As Payton told Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune, Payton knows just his return won’t automatically spark success. He’s going to have to drive this team to reclaim the glory of the recent past.
As it pertains to us right now, I think the approach we'll take as a staff and when the players get here, there's nothing promised for us going forward. Me coming back doesn't equate us going back right where we were in '09, '10 or '11, nor does it equate to where we finished a season ago. I think more so now than ever in our league, you start from square one.
“Square one” includes installing a new 3-4 defensive scheme and getting to know a group of players (e.g. anyone acquired via trade, free agency or through the draft since Payton’s suspension) who Payton has never been on the field with at the same time.
On paper, there are many aspects of this roster that look very promising for a return trip to the playoffs. However, as was the case last season, resumes don’t win football games. Payton has to direct his staff to turn things around, and saying that "Payton’s worth two to three wins" by himself could be a detrimental attitude.
One of the methods Sean Payton might utilize to erase the stink of the 2012 season could be to completely overhaul this Saints team.
That, however, would be a mistake.
There are certain aspects that need to be changed, with the defense as a case in point, but not everything needs a fresh start.
New Orleans allowed a whopping 7,042 yards of offense to opposing teams in 2012, by far the worst in the NFL. The next-poorest defense was that of the New York Giants, who still almost gave up 1,000 fewer yards than the Saints in allowing 6,134 yards.
This New Orleans defense needs to be overhauled. That’s why the Saints will switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme in 2013 and why the franchise hired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Still, there are some phenomenally great things about the Saints that shouldn’t be fiddled with by the organization.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 5,177 yards last season and connected on 43 touchdown passes. He’s still one of the elite passers in the NFL and the Saints' high-flying, attacking offense is a thing of beauty. Payton and his staff must leave the offense alone, for the most part.
It’s fine, and necessary, to install new wrinkles and directions for the offense during the offseason, but Payton can’t change too much of what worked in the past just because the team makeup is completely changing elsewhere.
It’s much easier for a land developer to bulldoze everything on a piece of property than to build a new neighborhood. Nevertheless, the neighborhood is much prettier in the end if the developer takes time and precious care to leave some of the attractive features of the original land in place instead of completely wiping everything out and starting fresh.
Will Brinson of CBS Sports caught up with Sean Payton at the NFL owners meetings in March when Payton made it very clear that the team can’t slip back into its old routines from years past:
I think it's essential because I think it's dangerous to think, 'Well, he's back, and they're back to being the old Saints.' That's a dangerous mindset for a team to have. That's not real. We could turn around and win five games if you don't correct some of what's [faulty]. So there's a lot of things that have changed.
Some of what’s “faulty” is the defense, and the Saints are attempting to fix that with a switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme.
There are still other questions that need to be answered before the Saints take the field against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1. While these are similar to the issues that every NFL team must face, Payton will be examined under a microscope this season for his choices.
When Payton tore his medial collateral ligament and broke a bone in his left leg in a 2011, sideline collision against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 6, he handed over play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael.
Carmichael handled the play-calling in 2012 as well, but as tweeted by Mike Triplett of The Times-Picayune, Payton hasn’t determined whether or not he’ll take back the responsibility of calling plays in 2013 or leave that in Carmichael’s hands:
Payton on whether Pete Carmichael will continue to call #Saints plays: "We haven't worked through all that yet. But Pete's invaluable. ...@MikeTriplett) June 5, 2013
With Carmichael calling the offense in 2012, New Orleans ranked second in the NFL with 6,574 yards from scrimmage and third with 28.8 points per game. This may be one of those situations where it’s not broken so there’s no need to fix it.
There will be numerous other similar decisions to make for Payton and his staff during the months leading up to the regular season. How often will he be able to remember his desire to stay away from reverting back to the “old Saints?”