PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There was none of the often-talked-about arrogance as Sean Payton stood in the lobby of The Breakers early Tuesday morning. Instead, the soon-to-be-deposed coach/king of the New Orleans Saints came across as humble, contrite and never pointed a finger at anyone but himself.
But, barring an appeal that would have to come soon, Payton made it clear he’s still acting as the coach of the Saints, and he even gave a pep talk to his team at a time when players are scattered around the country, enjoying their offseason.
Perhaps the most important bit of all was that Payton said that Saints fans, who have been very vocal in claiming Payton’s one-year suspension is too harsh and that he’s being singled out for a practice they believe is common around the league, shouldn’t feel sorry for the coach.
“No, I accept this," Payton said. “I’ve heard that argument. I think trying to really look closely at how we and how I can improve is probably a better way for me to handle this than to kind of vent or to look outwardly at other programs and I’ve tried to take that approach."
That’s a strong departure from a coach who, since joining the Saints in 2006, often has come across like he’s above everyone. Remember the story (the same one Payton wrote about in his own book) when he told one of his media relations workers to ask the league how much the fine was for missing the news conference the morning after he won the only Super Bowl in franchise history? Payton grudgingly showed up only after the NFL strongly informed the highest powers of the Saints that wasn’t even an option because no other winning coach ever had skipped the morning-after news conference. Remember the guy who scoffed at accusations he was running up the score last season so he could pad the stats of quarterback Drew Brees and other offensive players?
That guy was nowhere to be found Tuesday morning. Instead, Payton was a guy taking blame for something that went horribly wrong on his watch.
There were a few specifics that he wouldn’t comment on, but his overall theme was one of sorrow. That came through repeatedly as he faced numerous questions (far tougher questions than the ones he often would scoff at or not answer when he faced the local media after practice sessions) about a three-year bounty program that got Payton and the Saints in deep trouble with the NFL. In addition to Payton’s suspension, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell also suspended general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of this season, suspended assistant head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games of the season, fined the franchise $500,000 and stripped away the team’s second-round draft picks this year and next. Goodell also suspended former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely.
Payton said he hasn’t talked to Williams, who left for the St. Louis Rams right after the season, in the past several weeks. Williams often has been portrayed as the ringleader of the bounty program, including in the detailed report by the league. But there were no shots directed at Williams, who would have been an easy target as a rogue assistant. There were no shots directed at Goodell. Despite mentioning he still is considering an appeal, Payton mentioned the respect he has for Goodell’s office and authority. Payton simply pointed the finger at himself.
“You’re disappointed; you’re disappointed in yourself," Payton said.
Payton said he, Loomis and owner Tom Benson will spend the next few days plotting a course of action. He’s composing a long-term plan to hand off to whoever ends up coaching his team. He’s also working with Loomis and Benson on another crucial short-term project. Payton is taking an active role in deciding who will coach the Saints. He confirmed reports that he’s had some conversations with retired coach Bill Parcells, although he said the topic of Parcells taking his place hasn’t been discussed in great depth. However, he implied that could change shortly. Payton said he, Loomis and Benson will meet with Parcells very shortly. Parcells lives right up the road, a little less than an hour’s drive in Jupiter, Fla.
Payton also mentioned that some of his current assistants (perhaps offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer) remain options.
“One of the things we’ve got is a good group of coaches and we’ve got a great locker room,’’ Payton said. “I think the type of players we have, the character we have within the framework of the program, they’ll get through this. This will be a challenge for them. But I think it’s something that we’re kind of used to handling. We’ve gone through a lot of adversity and we’ve won a lot of games in really a short window of time. I know our players, our leaders within the locker room and on the coaching staff will look at this as a challenge and also a little bit as an opportunity.’’
This is where it sounded like Payton was still a coach. He sounded like he was giving a pregame or halftime speech to his team, one of the things he does best. Even as he prepares to disappear for a year, he rallied his troops.
“I think the hardest thing is that this would possibly put a taint or tarnish the success we’ve had and I think our players feel that same way,’’ Payton said. “We’ve won 41 games in the last three years. That’s hard to do. And that’s done through hard work. It’s done through discipline. It’s done through execution. It’s done through having good football players that are very coachable. So when we found ourselves maybe in a two-game losing streak or relocated because of a hurricane or we found ourselves kind of going through some tough times, we’ve always responded well. So this is uniquely different, but I do think our players and coaches will take that same response. That starts with our captains, guys that have been in our program for the whole six years that we’ve been together.’’
Payton said he has no doubt he’ll return to coach the Saints after he is reinstated. But it’s obvious Payton is still putting his stamp all over the Saints. They’ll have to carry on without him for a season, but it sounds like things will be conducted as business as usual.
After that? Payton will be back. He might even be slightly humbled and end up as a slightly different --perhaps better -- coach and person after the whole experience.