Sean Payton is back. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reinstated the New Orleans Saints head coach last week, and Payton joined his assistants in Mobile, Ala., to observe college seniors practicing for the Senior Bowl.
Payton's return was welcomed with great enthusiasm among fans, who began to talk about another Black and Gold Super Bowl. After all, everything is OK now, right? Wrong.
Don't get me wrong, everyone is happy about Payton's return — including Payton. But the man in charge — the head coach let it be known last week that the sheriff is back in town — understands that it's going to take more than just his presence to earn the Saints a return trip to the Super Bowl.
There's no question his absence affected the team's performance on many levels. While he was suspended, the swagger that had become emblematic of the Saints was gone, in-game adjustments seemed lacking, game plans failed to appropriately use players and, more important, the team lost the controlling force and leadership that is Sean Payton.
But was his suspension the sole reason the Saints went 7-9? "That's not going to be our reason for the good things or the bad things we did this past season," Payton told reporters last Wednesday during his first media session since he began serving a 281-day suspension as punishment for the bounty scandal. "It's easy to say, 'Hey this is just a fact, and this is what took place while the head coach wasn't there.' I know we've got to do a lot of things better or else we'll be at the Senior Bowl early again next year."
During his suspension, Payton communicated often with his mentor, former Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who warned Payton not to expect the team's problems to be solved the minute he walks back in the building. "'Hey you gotta make sure this mindset that you're back and all of a sudden you're back to winning 11, 12, 13 games next year doesn't exist, because you very well can win five next year,'" Payton quoted Parcells as saying.
"He's right," Payton said. "We've got a lot of things we've got to correct to get where we want to go — and that's just the truth. There's a lot that goes into winning — and a lot that goes into losing."
Payton is key to solving the team's problems, but he's not the end-all resolution. "When you play the way we played defensively, it's going to be hard to win," he said. "When you struggle running the football like we did the first half of the season, it's going to be hard to win. We struggled at times in special teams. ... These things that keep you from winning games are consistent."
The head coach must discover why his defense gave up a record-setting 7,042 yards this season — the most of any team in NFL history. He also must help quarterback Drew Brees get back to form. Brees' season ended with 5,177 yards passing and a league-leading 43 touchdowns — but he also was tied for being the league's most intercepted quarterback with 19.
Payton also must figure out how to use what many people feel are too many backs on the squad and establish a complementary running game. There's also a need to increase team speed, mostly on the defense. To make his job more complex, Payton must accomplish all of this while knowing he'll almost certainly have to cut some players because the team will be about $16 million over the salary cap.
"We've got a ton of challenges right now, a ton of work," Payton says. "We've got a lot of tough meetings coming ahead. It is what it is. That's what 7-9 means. Those are our challenges."
The challenges Payton faces are indeed difficult, but I think we all agree he's the right man for the job of turning the Saints back into a playoff team.
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