On football

Payton takes good first step

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / March 28, 2012
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PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Saints got into the bounty mess because their leaders exhibited off-the-charts arrogance and the kind of bulletproof mentality that is usually reserved for actual NFL players - and teenagers.

But in the first public steps for the franchise since it was slapped with unprecedented punishment by the NFL, Sean Payton appeared to be a changed coach.

He could have been defiant. Instead, he was contrite.

“You’re disappointed,’’ Payton said Tuesday at the NFL meetings when asked about his season-long suspension. “You’re disappointed in yourself that it got to this point, and I think we’re trained as coaches to begin preparation right away. I find myself reflecting on it, and you go through a lot of emotions.’’

He could have deflected the tough questions. Instead, he hit them head-on.

“Anything that happens in the framework of your team and your program, you’re responsible for, and that’s a lesson I’ve learned,’’ Payton said. “It’s one that it’s easy to get carried away with a certain side of the ball, more involved offensively or defensively, and that’s something I regret.’’

With that, the Saints took the proper tone toward putting this episode behind.

There is much work to be done. Aside from Payton’s suspension, the team was fined $500,000 and docked two second-round picks. General manager Mickey Loomis was suspended eight games, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six.

However, nobody should expect Payton to just go quietly into the night. He didn’t climb the coaching ranks swiftly by waiting patiently in the wings.

He indicated that he will appeal the suspension - right back in front of the judge and jury of commissioner Roger Goodell - if for no other reason than to give the Saints more time to set up their structure.

Payton confirmed that he had discussions with mentor Bill Parcells about being interim head coach, but termed them preliminary. However, such a move certainly would be a passive hand in the face of Goodell.

“I would say to you he’s a great teacher,’’ Payton said of Parcells. “Certainly I’m biased, having worked with him. But he’s a Hall of Fame head coach.

“And I would also say there are some things probably set up within the framework of our program that would be exactly how he would have set things up had he been the head coach here back in ’06 [when Payton was hired]. So there is some carryover that way.’’

And we aren’t even near the discussions about what Payton’s actual contact will be with his team while on suspension. But you can be sure that Payton - who was given the nickname “Dennis’’ by Parcells for a resemblance to Dennis the Menace in looks and actions - won’t just be twiddling his thumbs.

Still, there is little doubt that this episode has knocked the wind out of the 48-year-old Payton, who began his NFL coaching career as an assistant in 1997.

“Certainly you take lumps, and I’ve taken them before,’’ he said. “I look back to getting back, being successful, and being a part of it.

“I think the biggest challenge is driving in here this morning, this will probably be 39 years, as a Pop Warner player, as a high school player, a college player, then college coach, professional coach . . . this is potentially the first of 39 years where you’re not directly involved in football for a season.

“But that being said, I look forward to getting back in this position. I look forward to winning. And we’ll do that.’’

The days since the punishment was announced have been “difficult, challenging,’’ said Payton. “It’s interesting, you find out how close some of your friends are.

“The fans back in New Orleans have been amazing. My peers, guys that I’m very close with in this league, the players on our team. And really, it’s like a family. That’s the thing that will get you through something like this.’’

Amazingly, Payton said he hasn’t read the NFL’s report on the bounty case. He insisted that no players were seriously injured as a result of it. Payton denied that it was part of his mandate to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to make the defense “nasty.’’ Payton said he has not spoken to Williams, who was suspended indefinitely from his duties as Rams defensive coordinator.

One thing Payton did take issue with was Goodell’s assertion that the Saints, specifically Payton, were less than forthcoming in the investigation.

“I saw part of what he said and, specifically, I don’t know that he made mention of that directly to me,’’ Payton said. “That being said, we take his office very seriously and the role he has, and in the two trips to New York, I made sure I did everything I could in my power to answer the questions honestly.’’

While some thought the length of Payton’s suspension was too harsh - no head coach ever had been suspended for one game - and even though under-the-table bonuses have been handed out previously in the league, Payton didn’t fight it.

“I accept this,’’ he said. “I’ve heard that argument. I think trying to really look closely at how we and how I can improve has been and 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.

“Being in a leadership role myself as a head coach, certainly I understand the position [Goodell] is in, and I think he’s made it clear and for good reason. We have such a good product right now, just the idea of something of this magnitude is an important issue he wanted to address.’’

And the way Payton handled things Tuesday was important as well.

It set the stage for the Saints to endure the penalties, put the episode behind them, and emerge whole next season, or at least in 2013, when Payton said he’s “100 percent certain’’ he’ll return as head coach.

“I think the hardest thing is that this would possibly put a taint or tarnish on 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.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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