At last year’s NFL league meetings, Saints coach Sean Payton had just been suspended for the season for his role in the bounty scandal by commissioner Roger Goodell. Payton, almost like an outcast, met a swarm of media in the lobby of the hotel.
This past Wednesday, Payton was back where he belonged: with his colleagues at the NFC coaches breakfast, ready to start anew.
“I’m fired up. I’m pretty excited,” Payton said. “Look, we’ve got a lot of work to do, though.”
Payton had to watch from afar — contact with the club was prohibited — as the Saints went 7-9, their first losing season since 2007 (Payton’s second with them).
“It’s painful,” he said. “There’s so much you have invested in a program, and so each week to sit and watch from a distance every game . . . absolutely [painful], because these are players and coaches you care about like your own family. So, unusual and difficult, yes.”
One way Payton filled his time was to help coach his son’s sixth-grade team near Dallas. And if you think Payton dialed it back, you’d be wrong.
“I’d be at the Kinkos making copies of playbooks for the sixth-grade team, and I’m getting fired up,” Payton said. “When we’d lose a game and only score 7 points, I’m upset because I know there’s some other defensive coordinator that’s going home and celebrating with his wife.
“The one team we couldn’t beat was this single-wing team. I talked to [Bill] Parcells about it and [Jon] Gruden. We had every defense in the sun and we still hadn’t found the football. I still can’t find it.
“In Texas you’ll have a parent go scout these teams of sixth graders and on Wednesdays we’d be looking at the DVD in the condominium to see what kind of front we were getting and who we had to beat.”
Opponent film study? On sixth graders?
“It was pretty normal,” said Payton. “It wasn’t a tape exchange [as in college]. There would be a dad or someone who would go. And at our home games, we would look up and there would be someone taping our game that we’re playing next week.
“I just kept looking at it [like], ‘How can we make this a better-quality tape.’ I was actually wanting him to be in a lift in the end zone.”
Back in the world of professional football, Payton has set out to make this a fresh start for everyone in the Saints organization.
“I think it’s essential, because I think it’s dangerous to think, ‘Well, he’s back and they’re back to being the old Saints,’ ” said Payton, whose team went 37-11 with a Super Bowl title in his three seasons before the suspension. “That’s a dangerous mind-set for a team to have. We could turn around and win five games if you don’t correct some of what’s [faulty].”
Payton said the time away allowed him to see some of the things that needed to be changed upon his arrival.
“You come back and you think, ‘Well, when did this start happening?’ ” he said. “In the building, within the framework of your club, your team. When did this start happening? You’ve got players up by the sidelines, guys wearing their hats, there’s a bunch of stuff that would drive me crazy on game day.
“They had a bench penalty. I told the staff the other day, ‘If we ever have a bench penalty in a game, during any game, after my coronary attack, you’re going to deal with me.’
“When you’re away for a while and you come back and the swing set is messy and there’s dirty diapers that are in the garbage can that would normally be empty every day, you start seeing things and thinking, ‘Well how could this have happened?’
“It just begins to happen. It’s not just one person’s fault.”
The big on-field change will come on defense. Payton swapped out the 4-3 defense of Steve Spagnuolo for the 3-4 scheme used by former Patriots assistant Rob Ryan, who was with the Cowboys the last two seasons.
“In all fairness to Steve, we never got to coach together,” Payton said. “I think it was a unique, not only difficult but somewhat unfair situation to Steve. He’s hired, and then all of a sudden the guy he was going to work with [is suspended and] he doesn’t have a chance to, he coaches the defense for a season and then here it is, ‘We’re making a change.’ And I told him that.
“Look, every one of these things is unprecedented. So I felt, specifically for he and [fired secondary coach] Kenny Flajole, I felt bad and I felt like there were a handful of these things that were messed up.”
As for Ryan, Payton wants that edge — minus the scandals — back on defense.
“I think he’ll have a tremendous impact,” Payton said. “I like his passion. We’re looking for people like that who have that about their job.
“I think there’s a confidence he brings to his units. I thought they played well on defense last year considering the injuries. I had a chance to see a lot of their tape. I’m excited to see he’s with us. It’s been a real good fit so far.”
RIGHT PLACE, WRONG TIME
Giants just didn’t have position Kelly wanted
Manchester, N.H.’s, favorite son, new Eagles coach Chip Kelly, nearly broke into the NFL with the Giants.
Former Giants line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, an ex-Boston University lineman, recommended his friend Kelly to TomCoughlin in 2006.
“He should have been coaching for me!” Coughlin said. “We interviewed Chip for a quality-control position. He wanted to be a position coach. He wanted to coach the quarterbacks or something like that, and we had a quality-control position open.”
Kelly said it was a tough choice.
“I was very tempted to go, because I have the utmost respect for [Coughlin],” Kelly said. “Philosophically, we were very similar in terms of being disciplined, not making mistakes, taking advantage of what the offense gives you.
“The only reason I didn’t take the job was because I wasn’t going to be a position coach. That’s what I was going to miss if I left New Hampshire.
“You don’t have a position group you can coach, you’re not doing on-field coaching, you’re doing the breakdown aspect of things, which I liked, but the fact that you weren’t going to be able to coach in practice . . .”
That 2006 season was Kelly’s eighth and final as offensive coordinator for the Wildcats’ record-breaking offense. He made the jump the next year to Oregon as offensive coordinator, and was head coach in his third season with the Ducks (2009). Looks like Kelly made the right choice.
“I’ve always said before, the big time’s where you’re at, so if you’re happy — and I was extremely happy where I was — I’m not a big second-guess guy,” he said.
Now Kelly and Coughlin will get to match wits twice a year.
“That game between Philadelphia and the New York Giants has a little bit of juice to it,” said Kelly. “So I’m real excited about the opportunity to coach against him.”
Boldin deal explained from the Ravens’ side
More than a few people thought something wasn’t on the level when the Ravens (coached by John Harbaugh) traded standout receiver Anquan Boldin to the 49ers (coached by Jim Harbaugh) and received “only” a sixth-round pick.
John Harbaugh described how the trade went down.
“It was quick, I can tell you that,” he said. “It was kind of a situation where we were really working hard to do something to make it work where Anquan could stay. I believe Anquan was really working hard to do that, too.
“He had a position that I personally respected. We had a position where the math was what it was. So it wasn’t going to work.
“We knew it wasn’t going to work out as far as changing the contract around, and we were going to lose him. We thought we could work it out in the best interest of both parties.
“It was me to my brother. I called him up and just said, ‘Would you be interested?’ He said, ‘Heck, yeah, let me go talk to [general manager] Trent [Baalke].’ This was about 3:30, before the 4 o’clock deadline.
“He ran down to Trent and they talked, and then Trent got on the phone with [Ravens GM] Ozzie [Newsome] and they had it worked out.”
John joked that his brother probably thought he was trying to pull one over on him.
“I’m sure he was probably a little suspicious,” John Harbaugh said. “But Anquan’s a great player, there’s just no denying it.
“I think they feel like they got a great deal. I know they got a great player, they got a great leader, they got a guy that will be a perfect fit in their offense in a lot of ways, and they realized that right away.”
Boldin is one of seven starters the Ravens have lost so far this offseason.
“It’s the nature of the league,” said John Harbaugh. “It’s the unfortunate way the salary cap is set up with a hard cap. You just cannot hold your team together for long periods of time.”
For Colts, Hasselbeck is old reliable backup
When you’re going to be a 38-year-old quarterback in the fall and started just five games last season, there usually isn’t much of a market for your services. That’s why it said a great deal about former Boston College star Matt Hasselbeck that it took him just one day last week to find work with the Colts as Andrew Luck’s backup on a two-year deal. “I can help strengthen the team by being ready to go, being a guy the team can count on if necessary,” said Hasselbeck. “The statistics would say your backup quarterback is going to play. Everyone hopes that he doesn’t, but the statistics are that he does. I just wanted to be a part of something special. I wanted to be a part of a team that has a chance to win the Super Bowl. I wanted to be working with quality people.”
1. Ever wonder why the smarter teams, including the Patriots, often end up going after the same free agents? They prefer to sign street players — those that have been released by their previous clubs — because those players don’t count in the formula for compensatory picks. A player coming off an expiring contract does. Adrian Wilson and Leon Washington were both released before signing with New England.
2. I don’t like some of the “player safety” rules in the NFL — the ridiculous amount of protection given to the quarterbacks, for starters — but the crown-of-the-helmet rule was long overdue. It’s one thing to use the hairline of the helmet, but no player at any level of football should be lowering his head so that he initiates contact with the top of his helmet. It’s extremely dangerous.
3. Good move by Browns owner Jimmy Haslam to bring Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown back into the fold (in an as-yet-unspecified position). Brown was estranged from the team the past two years after resigning as a consultant once then-president Mike Holmgren demoted him.
4. The chances of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer returning to the Patriots increase by the day. Amazing that he’s had no market, likely because of his postseason knee scope. More than a few teams missed out on the best right tackle in football. Don’t be surprised if a deal with the Patriots is more than a one-year holding pattern.
5. Three former Packers — general managers John Schneider (Seahawks) and John Dorsey (Chiefs), and Dolphins coach Joe Philbin — are part of teams that have gone nuts with free agent signings and trades. All worked last for Ted Thompson, who usually sits out the offseason. The former Packers are like first-semester college freshmen: Free of parental restrictions, they’re going wild on their own. Of course, Thompson is the only one with a Super Bowl ring.
With center Brad Meester re-signing with the Jaguars for a 14th season, there are now three players still in the league from the 2000 draft: Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress (eighth overall), Meester (second round), and Tom Brady (sixth round). Even more amazing is that with Burress returning to the Steelers, all three are with their original teams. Meester and Brady never left . . . The Jaguars, who have the second overall pick in the draft, went to West Virginia to work out quarterback Geno Smith. “I sat down one-on-one with him and I just wanted to see how he would be once he entered our building,” said new coach Gus Bradley, the former defensive coordinator for the Seahawks. “Are people going to gravitate toward him? Is he going to be a leader? Is he going to be a guy that everybody backs and will he allow that to happen? I wanted to see his competitiveness. Will it be a deal where it’s his team and somebody has to take it away? We had a great talk. I was very impressed with him. I had high expectations but I think I came out of there feeling even better.” . . . Jets coach Rex Ryan said he’s not worried about his job security or reputation. “I’m just concerned about coaching this football team,” he said. “It’s never been about me or my security. I know for a fact that I’m coaching this football team this year, and I’m excited about that. The league knows that I can coach. I’m not worried about that. I think people should be worried about us a lot more than they are.” . . . Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was asked if linebacker Rey Maualuga is his own worst enemy. “He has been that way from the start,” Lewis said. “He worries too much. Unfortunately, too many people get in his ear. For being supposedly a big, tough guy, he just is concerned about people liking him and he doesn’t need to do that.” Lewis said Maualuga is improving, even though fans think he’s struggling. “Because they look at some dumb-ass website that doesn’t have any idea of what football is,” Lewis said, in reference to profootballfocus.com. “The same website that two years ago rated Kelly Jennings the best tackling corner in the NFL. These people who aren’t football, they are trying to be critical. We’ll be as critiquing of Rey as we need to be, we don’t need any help.”Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.