PHOENIX -- Sean Payton, as he helpfully pointed out during Wednesday's breakfast with the NFC coaches, has been "back" for some time. But he hasn't officially returned to football yet. And as he prepares to do that over the next few months, he's basically in a rookie coaching mode again.
But that's how Payton wants it to be. He's worried that trying to just be the same old Saints team would result in him taking on the wrong frame of mind when he and the team approach the season.
“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," Payton said. "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."
Payton's absence wasn't necessarily a direct reason for his new offseason extension with New Orleans (which came after the league office voided the original deal), but it was clear just how valuable Payton was to the Saints last season when they struggled in many phases of the game.
But, again, it doesn't mean they're coming back out and waltzing to the playoffs, something that Payton made sure to emphasize while speaking with the media.
“I think the one thing we have to avoid is the perception that they'll be right back in the swing of things," Payton said. "The way we played a year ago and some of the things we have to correct, we've got a lot of work ahead of us. Each year, we kind of all turn the page in this league. There's teams that step up. ... We were last in the league on defense, bottom of the league in rushing on offense. We did a lot of things that prevented you from winning games.
"And so, until we get some of that corrected, and until we get a lot of that corrected, we've got a lot of work to do. I'm anxious to do it."
Part of that work, as odd as it might sound, is getting familiar with his roster. Payton obviously watched all the Saints games, and he knows what these guys can do on the field. But he pointed out that because of the timing of his suspension, he's dealing with more than the average roster turnover that a normal coach might see.
"I said this to Mickey [general manager Loomis] the other day, whatever the turnover is per year in our league, let's just call it 18 percent of your roster give or take," Payton said. "So you have that turnover and you have a season where you're away from the team and then you have another 18 percent. Well, technically, there's close to 40 percent or 30-something percent for me."
Guys like Curtis Lofton, David Hawthorne and Ben Grubbs -- three free agents whom Payton signed in the 2012 offseason before he was suspended -- weren't part of a roster that he ever really worked with. As a result, he literally has seen players since his return whom he he doesn't even know or really recognize.
"There was never any chance to work with them," Payton said. "So it's not been uncommon to walk the hallways and pass a player that maybe you haven't met yet or a draft pick or somebody on your team, which I would equate to any coach that's in their first year. So I've kind of in a lot of ways looked at that as we're kind of starting new in '13, just like I was hired this past offseason."
Payton's return isn't a full-blown reboot, though. To suggest that would be to ignore the one obvious stable presence on the roster in Drew Brees. The quarterback had what -- for him, anyway -- could be considered a down year in 2012. Brees' completion percentage dipped below 65 percent for the first time since 2006 (his first season in New Orleans). Sure, he still threw for more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. But something was off for him. Perhaps the biggest difference was one that Payton noticed as well: Brees was pressing last year.
"The ability to play defense and run the football are two great allies for good quarterback play," Payton said. "When you tell me a team is last in the league in defense and last in the running game, I'm telling you the quarterback's job description is entirely different. I'm telling you he's having to play and press and try to do certain things that his counterpart may not have to do based on the way that team is running the ball or playing defense."
As a result, Payton believes, Brees could "get one dimensional" and get to a place where he wasn't "controlling the game." It comes back to something that I mentioned in the Saints' free-agency preview earlier this month; there's a checks-and-balances benefit to the Saints' offense when Payton and Brees are working together. They're substantially more efficient when combining forces than they are separately.
It probably didn't help matters much that Brees was as stunned and overwhelmed with Payton's suspension and the bounty scandal as the coach himself.
"Look, how do you practice, simulate or train for the suspension for a season for a coach?" Payton asked. "There's no model or ‘Well, this is what you guys have to do' then. But I know with him, it wasn't because of effort or preparation. I'm sure. And it's hard watching the frustration with guys that you've spent a lot of time with."
So what do we expect from Payton heading into 2013? The Saints are shifting defenses to a 3-4 and have some good personnel for that style, one that Payton believes "statistically over the last 10 years, that defense has fared better" and is "more challenging to run against."
That makes even more sense when you hear the first thing out of Payton's mouth once he's asked about the Saints' biggest defensive problem: big runs.
“I thought we gave up the big runs," Payton said, specifically citing an issue that he saw with safety alignment, the play calls involved and the result. "I saw a lot of big runs when safeties were in the box. That was concerning. In other words, we're playing the run and one goes for 30 yards."
Switching to the 3-4 won't solve all the issues. But having Rob Ryan coach up a more aggressive defense -- one that will feature new cornerback upgrade Keenan Lewis and possibly even Nnamdi Asomugha -- should help.
So should the year off for Payton. Coaching in the NFL is a completely different animal, and it's a lifestyle that will burn you out faster than Saints fans can print anti-Roger Goodell T-shirts.
Payton looks rested, and he clearly has lost weight while making a conscious effort to get in shape during his hiatus; it was one of the things on his "bucket list" while he was forced to spend time away from the NFL.
“I had opportunities to coach my son's youth football team, spend more time with the children in Dallas," Payton said. "I put together a bucket list of a bunch of things together: ran a half marathon, got in shape, did a number of things you wouldn't do on a normal basis, saw the dentist on a regular basis instead of just when something was wrong."
It's a different world for NFL coaches. Even when he wasn't part of the game, Payton was still a figure in the NFL world (and it turns out local Texas football isn't much different -- he was making playbooks for a sixth-grade team and lamented not only his inability to stop the single-wing offense but the lack of quality video produced by his advanced scout) and he remains a highly-scrutinized coach.
When the football actually begins, plenty of people will be looking to see how the year off affected Payton, who said he's "fired up" and "excited" to get back on the field. But will he actually be any different once the football begins? Who knows? It's easy to fall for some sucker redemption tale in a case like this.
A year off, a new mindset, a clean slate, refreshed, re-energized, recommitted, a clearer perspective. All of those phrases swirl around Payton as he prepares to return to the Saints.
It's all irrelevant, though. Payton coaches football at the game's highest level, and he has won at the highest level. It's not about redeeming himself or changing his legacy. It's about winning football games and getting the Saints back to the place that we're used to seeing them: the postseason.
So to say Payton feels that he needs the suspension or that he thinks it was some sort of event that was supposed to happen is delusional. And he'd tell you that himself.
"I don't know that I would say everything happens for a reason. I would say everything happens."