METAIRIE, LA. — An upbeat press conference clouded over a bit Saturday when New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was asked if his team’s win over Philadelphia had more meaning because he wasn’t around the previous season due to NFL suspension.
Payton’s two word reply: “Next question.”
However, beyond that death-stare silence, the numbers talk.
Over the four seasons from 2009 through 2013, the Saints won 11 or more games three times. The exception was the 7-9 tumble of 2012, when Payton’s absence was the primary price the team paid for what has come to be known as “Bountygate,” a scandal in which the NFL found that Saints defenders were offered money for inflicting injuries on opposing players.
And if those numbers leave anything unsaid, Payton’s players are eager to flesh out their meaning.
“Football teams are complex,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “These organizations, there’s a lot of people involved. And when you take the absolute top leader piece of that out, it’s very difficult to function completely normally. And I think getting Coach back has been a huge help for us. … He brings a lot to this team, and losing him was difficult.”
The closest Payton has come to addressing the topic was his recent use of the shorthand phase “all the other stuff,” when discussing the Saints’ troubled 2012 season.
But on Tuesday, after his team completed practice for its NFC playoff game Saturday at Seattle, he acknowledged that coaches rank among many important ingredients for football success.
“It’s a great team sport,” Payton said. “It’s personnel. It’s players. It’s acquiring good players. And then it’s putting in the scheme that fits what they do, being flexible. I think obviously (coaching is) significant, but the good teams have that combination.”
In 2005, the Saints weren’t a good team. That changed in 2006 when Payton arrived and immediately lifted them to a 10-6 season — an improvement of seven wins. After the 11-5 regular season of 2013, his record as a head coach stands at 74-39, and the win at Philadelphia last weekend raised his playoff mark to 6-3, including the 3-0 Super Bowl run following the 2009 season.
However, that also was the season when the Bountygate scandal began bubbling. After a lull, it boiled over in January 2012, when the NFL informed the Saints that it was reopening an investigation. On March 6, 2012, Payton issued a statement taking responsibility for not stopping the program. And on March 21, 2012, commissioner Roger Goodell announced Payton was found to have known about the plan and to have participated in a cover-up.
The punishment handed down was suspension for the entire 2012 NFL season, the first time a coach had received a season-long suspension from the league for any reason. Payton appealed, but the suspension stood until Jan. 22, 2013.
In his absence, the Saints assigned interim head coaching duties to Joe Vitt — the assistant head coach who had spent 10 seasons (1982-91) seasons in Seattle while holding several titles with the Seahawks.
However, Vitt was unavailable for the first six games — also due to a Bountygate suspension — so the team began the season under the leadership of offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.
“It’s like the players, man: Next man up,” defensive end Tom Johnson said. “It’s kind of that mentality. There was no sense (of loss) with Joe coming in. He did what he could. … It’s just a tough situation, and no one had ever been in that situation, so you had to play it on the fly. It was one of those things where you had to feel your way through it, and we had a rough season. But once everything was in order and with Sean coming back, you’ve seen what kind of changes.”
The changes were immediate, as the Saints went again from losers to Super Bowl contenders.
His players credit him with several key contributions. Some cited the pure X’s and O’s of his offensive genius. Others say he seemed to return with new ideas after a season of having to watch from a forced distance.
Several pointed to Payton’s decision to bring in Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator, giving the Saints a defensive identity they had previously lacked.
And finally, as with many great coaches, there was just that certain something.
“We missed like his swag,” running back Darren Sproles said. “He’s got swag, and we missed that.”