New Orleans fans would never admit it, but Roger Goodell might have done the Saints a favor when he suspended Sean Payton for a year.
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It made Payton a better coach, and he was already one of the best in the NFL. His biggest flaw was that he knew it.
If you want to take a guy down a notch, there’s nothing like going from NFL genius to assistant coach on his son’s sixth-grade team. Then make him watch helplessly as his old team plays like a bunch of sixth graders.
After being sent to his room over Bountygate, a new-and-improved Payton has emerged. It’s as obvious as the roar that’s been emanating from the Superdome this season.
The Saints are 4-0 heading into Sunday’s game at Chicago, FOX’s Game of the Week (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET). New Orleans began 0-4 last season with largely the same roster. But that’s definitely not the same Drew Brees, Darren Sproles or defense we’ve been seeing.
Rob Ryan deserves some credit for resuscitating the league’s worst defense from 2012. But it’s Payton who has brought the mojo back.
“He’s our lead man,” Brees said after the Saints beat Miami, 38-17, Monday night. “I tell you what, from the moment he stepped back in the facility in April, he’s been locked in.”
Payton was always locked in, perhaps too much for his own good. He was a control freak with a cocky streak. As the Saints flourished, Payton got a little tipsy on power.
It was small things, like bullying media. After winning the Super Bowl, Payton inquired if he could pay the fine for not showing up at the morning-after press conference. The NFL sternly informed him no coach — not Don Shula, not Bill Walsh, not even Bill Belichick — had considered themselves above that duty.
It was the big thing, like denying he knew about the pay-for-hits program run by assistant Gregg Williams. Payton told his staff to cover it up, not tell investigators the truth. He thought he was above the law, until he wasn’t.
Payton admits he seethed at first over the suspension. Not to the degree of Saints fans, who constructed a profane Mardi Gras float featuring Goodell’s head and a woman’s body part.
“The first five, six week, I was furious,” Payton said when he first returned. “Then I was able to move past it. I knew I couldn’t hold onto that resentment or I’d go crazy.”
Most of us would go nuts at the loss of $7.5 million in salary. Payton was also going through a divorce. He was banned from almost all NFL contact, which meant he couldn’t talk to most of his friends.
At least the NFL couldn’t ban him from becoming offensive coordinator of his son’s team. Payton unwound and reflected in Dallas. He became a workout freak. He said he was humbled when Saints owner Tom Benson gave him a new contract instead of firing him.
Payton returned a lean, not-quite-as-mean coaching machine. New Orleans allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards last season. One of his first moves was replacing Steve Spagnuolo with Ryan.
Given all the Bountygate drama, the Saints were primed for a turnaround. But Payton also overhauled the playbook. He is a play-calling master. A good Miami defense didn’t know what to do Monday as New Orleans raced to a 35-10 lead.
Brees is looking downright Peyton-like, and the Saints’ storyline for 2013 seems obvious: Payback!
That’s not how Payton wants it. He’s stressed that he wants this season to be fueled by positive new energy, not old resentments.
It’s worked so far, though the Saints’ only road game has been to Tampa Bay. The next two games are at Chicago and New England. That will show just how far New Orleans can take this act.
If it’s all the way to the Super Bowl, the NFL can relax. The lead man will be grateful to show up for the morning-after press conference.