Last year, at every step along the way — the Senior Bowl, the draft, OTAs, minicamp, the opening of training camp, before the first exhibition game and before the first regular-season game — the inevitable question came Saints coach Sean Payton’s way — “How does it feel to be back?”
This year though, his season-long suspension in 2012 as a result of the pay-for-performance scandal might as well be forgotten history.
“It’s different,” Payton said Thursday as the Saints wrapped up their second week of OTAs. “It’s not all new anymore. And it’s nice that I didn’t get this question again until today.”
As Payton said, it is different from a year ago.
In 2013, like a player coming back from injury that had kept him out for a season, Payton returned with boundless energy, partially due, no doubt, to the cross-fit workouts he decided the team needed to go through as well.
“Certainly initially when he came back he was different,” tackle Zack Strief said. “It’s just human nature when you miss something for a year and to be excited to get back in it with a little more juice.
“He’s always been an active coach, an active guy. But you can tell him I said he had more juice last year.”
Well, maybe not too loudly.
Going into his ninth season with the Saints, Payton is as fully engaged as ever, although he has perhaps learned the fine art of delegating a little more.
“He wants to win, but he lets us be pros going about our business,” said recently acquired veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, who’s playing for his seventh head coach, nine if you count interns, in his 15-year career. “And he lets the coaches do their thing, too.
“That’s what I like about him. I wish I had been here to see him last season because of what I’ve heard, but he did probably come back with a little different perspective.”
Perhaps. But to General Manager Mickey Loomis, who served his own eight-game suspension for his role in the scandal, it’s more a part of the maturation of someone who is now fourth in the league in years as head coach of his current team.
“It’s the benefit of experience,” Loomis said. “Every year is different and yet every year is the same.
“You get into this calendar of every year (and) there are certain things you have to accomplish by this date. Even if you had to miss a year like he did, with each passing year you get more comfortable.”
But not stuck in a rut.
That’s why, Loomis said, the team will hold its first three weeks three weeks training camp at The Greenbriar in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, instead of staying at its Metairie headquarters throughout.
“Every three or four years I feel like we need to shake things up,” he said. “We would have done it in 2012, but obviously there were other issues and last year we felt it was better just to stay here.”
However, Loomis pointed out, the idea for a change of scenery was his and that he was interested in the Greenbriar before Payton had caddied for Ryan Palmer in last year’s Greenbriar Classic.
“I told him to check the place out for a training camp and he came back telling me it would be ideal,” Loomis said.
And neither is Payton reluctant to make small changes to the team’s look in the OTAs.
In 2013, because there had been such a large turnover in personnel since 2011, Payton had all of the names of all the players’ taped on their helmet fronts, not just the newcomers as had been in the case in the past.
This, year’s the name tags remain.
“We’ve got 90 guys out there,” he said. “Putting their names on their helmets made it a lot of easier for all of us than in the past, so this time we just stayed with it.”
Maybe that is a slight concession to age.
But newly signed center Jonathan Goodwin, who returned to the team this week after spending the past three seasons with San Francisco said he saw only one difference between the rookie coach he played for when coming to the Saints in 2006 and the one today.
“Sean looks fitter,” he said. “A lot fitter.”