In some ways, Sean Payton is starting over

Sean Payton knows things won't be easy as he resumes head coaching duties. John David Mercer/US Presswire

Those who sat with and listened to Sean Payton speak to the media at the NFL owners meeting in Arizona on Wednesday said the coach of the New Orleans Saints had a new look and a new sound.

They said he appeared more fit (probably a result of a fitness program that culminated with his running a half-marathon) and younger than he has looked in years. They said he looked relaxed and -- in the biggest news flash of all -- sounded almost humble at times.

"It's almost like Year 1," Payton said.

In some ways, it is Year 1 all over again. Payton is back from a season-long suspension stemming from the bounty scandal. It's a good thing he's fit and refreshed because he's facing a challenge almost as big as the one he so successfully took on when he first became the coach of the Saints in 2006.

Back then, the franchise, the city of New Orleans and the entire Gulf region were dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A young hotshot who had made his name as an assistant with the Cowboys and Giants, Payton energized the Saints, and the team became a rallying point for the entire region.

You know the story of the electric return to the Superdome against the Atlanta Falcons. You know the story of how the Saints made it to the NFC Championship Game in Payton's first season and how they won the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history in his fourth year.

In the process, a die-hard fan base that had endured decades of disappointment came to expect big success on a regular basis.

Then along came the bounty scandal and the Saints traveled back in time. They went back to mediocrity and went 7-9 while putting a historically bad defense on the field.

"We found a way to get to 7-9 and that's where we are right now," Payton said. "Until we get a lot of that corrected, we've got a lot of work to do."

Although he's known around the league for his confidence (some would say arrogance), Payton wasn't beating his chest. He pulled off a miracle in New Orleans once and he knows an encore isn't going to be easy.

"What's dangerous is [saying], 'He's back and they're right back to being the old Saints,'" Payton said. "That’s a dangerous mindset to have. It's not real. We could turn around and win five games if we don't correct some things."

That's a very healthy and smart attitude to have because the Saints aren't the same team he was forced to walk away from just over a year ago. Things didn't work out well for Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive coordinator Payton hand-picked to replace Gregg Williams.

The Saints allowed more yards than any defense in history.

"In fairness to Steve, we never got to coach together," Payton said. "It was a difficult and probably unfair situation for Steve."

Fair or not, Spagnuolo was fired after last season and has been replaced by Rob Ryan, who will switch the base defense from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 front. Ryan faces a monumental task. Not only is he taking over a defense that was horrible last season, but he has to find a way to make a new scheme work when the Saints don't have much salary-cap room to bring in guys who will fit in his system.

But there's more than just a defense to fix. Even quarterback Drew Brees had a subpar (by his standards) 2012 season.

"His two greatest allies are a good defense and a decent, good running game," Payton said. "The quarterback's job description is entirely different. He's having to press and do things that his counterpart doesn't have to do. You get one-dimensional where you're not controlling the game."

The Saints have to get back to controlling games and Payton has to get back to controlling the Saints. As he watched his team from a distance last year, Payton said he felt like a parent who had left his child in the hands of a baby sitter.

"When you're away from it and you come back and the swing set is empty and there's dirty diapers in the garbage can that normally would be taken away each day, you wonder, 'How did this happen?' Payton said. "It's not one person's fault. It just happened."

And again, Payton would like to remind you that his mere presence isn't going to solve everything.

"I think the one thing we have to avoid is this perception that we'll be right back in the swing of things," Payton said.

It's true that Payton has to get used to a bunch of new players, and the coaching staff has had some turnover. Payton estimated that the Saints turn over 18 percent of the roster each year. He didn't get to know the new players from last season and he has to get to know the players that have been (and will be) added this year. That's nearly 40 percent of the roster.

"It's not been uncommon to walk the hallways and run into a player you haven't met yet," Payton said. "I'd equate that almost to a coach in the first year."

Maybe that's not such a bad spot to be in. Sure there's a ton of work to be done. But the last time Payton was a first-year coach, he turned a franchise around.

I wouldn't bet against him doing it again.