Sean Payton wants Saints fans and the city of New Orleans to provide a “gracious” environment when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell comes to visit next week.
And I want to visit Bourbon Street and swill Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s all night while waking up hangover-free.
Neither of these things is going to happen.
Just like chugging water and taking aspirin before bed after a bender, the NFL has tried to minimize the headache it knows is coming. This — and not good behavior on anyone’s part — is why I believe Goodell lifted Payton’s year-long suspension on Tuesday several weeks earlier than expected.
Goodell is shrewd enough to know that any further controversy regarding the bounty scandal that rocked the Saints last year will draw attention away from where he wants the media focus. That’s squarely on Super Bowl XLVII.
Payton is doing his part to reduce the local venom awaiting his former judge, juror and jailer. Payton was initially defiant to Goodell when the league announced last March that it had found the Saints guilty of offering financial rewards for knocking opposing players out of games with injuries. He is now sounding a conciliatory tone while toeing Goodell’s company line of a greater commitment to player safety.
I wouldn’t say Payton and Goodell are ready to take a walking tour together through the Garden District. But at least in front of the cameras, the relationship definitely doesn’t have the same Pete Rozelle-Al Davis chill as before.
When I asked Payton for a description of his relationship with Goodell during a 45-minute news conference Wednesday at the Senior Bowl, he responded with the terms “very good” and “positive.”
“It’s changed in that we’ve had a chance to visit a lot,” Payton said in his first comments since being cleared to return. “This was the third full meeting. For me to have an opportunity to sit down 4½ hours on Monday and talk about a number of things openly and candidly with him and vice-versa, it was important. He saw from me the things I was able to reflect upon and make him comfortable with reinstatement.”
Goodell realizes he is entering an uncomfortable environment while preparing to lord over Super Bowl festivities. Saints fans are salivating to get their pound of flesh by heckling Goodell — or potentially worse — when he does appear in public settings.
Many would rather blindly blame Goodell than admit it was the club’s own fault for not eradicating the bounty program allegedly run by ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams after repeated warnings from the league. Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and interim head coach Joe VItt (six games) were all suspended for not curtailing what the NFL described as an irresponsible and dangerous “culture.”
This has made Goodell more despised than the most corrupt politicians in Louisiana history (just think about the ground that covers). Restaurants throughout the area have photos of Goodell in their windows with the sign, “Do not feed this man.” T-shirts with the slogan “Free Sean Payton” were hot sellers last summer.
During a trip to the French Quarter last September, I ran into a street performer covered in spray paint. “Gold Man” said tips were never better than when he posed for photos alongside a sign reading “To NFL Roger Goodell” and flashed his middle finger.
Saints players fueled additional vitriol with shots at Goodell as their Super Bowl dreams crumbled in Payton’s absence. To an extent, such anger was justified. The league’s case against the Saints was hardly air-tight. Proof came during the appeals process when ex-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the suspensions of four players, including two currents Saints (linebacker Jon Vilma and defensive end Will Smith), that Goodell alleged were involved in the bounty program.
Tagliabue’s ruling and a 7-9 finish by the Saints was the equivalent of adding more Tabasco to a bowl of gumbo that was already hot enough.
Payton would watch video of Saints’ games every week knowing he was powerless to fix a team that wasn’t running the football well or playing any semblance of defense. These failings had a trickle-down effect on the performance of Payton’s prized pupil — quarterback Drew Brees.
“Watching from afar there are certain things you would see,” Payton said. “Naturally, it becomes at times frustrating.”
After a while, though, Payton admits he simply had to accept there was nothing he could do but fill up yellow notebooks with observations and patiently wait to implement them.
Now that he’s back, Payton is wasting no time in working to make the Saints a Super Bowl winner once again even though he won’t get the chance to accomplish that inside the Louisiana Superdome where Baltimore and San Francisco will meet. Payton began scouting college talent first-hand at the Senior Bowl on Wednesday morning and had what he expected would be a “painful” afternoon staff meeting planned where the defense would be analyzed.
“That’s what 7-9 is,” he lamented.
But when he’s done looking back, Payton has to keep moving forward. There are coaching, free-agent and other personnel decisions that must get made. Wasting time thinking about what could have been in 2012 will do him and the Saints no good at this point.
“The most important element here is closure and us moving forward,” Payton said. “This next step is important. We’ve got so many other challenges . . . Move onto the next challenge.”
I get the strong feeling Saints fans aren’t quite ready to do the same until Super Bowl XLVII has come and gone.