NEW ORLEANS — Even as Sean Payton tried to make the best of his one-season bounty banishment from the NFL by spending time with his children, getting in shape and playing golf, he often compared his punishment to prison time.
He missed his work that much, his players say, adding that his return has infused Saints headquarters with a fresh intensity leading up to Tuesday’s opening of voluntary offseason practices.
“You can sail a boat without a captain, but sometimes you don’t know exactly where you’re going,” right tackle Zach Strief said on Monday, shortly before teeing off at a Saints Hall of Fame golf event.
The fiery head coach’s return, Strief said, is “getting us back on the right path, and I think everything we’ve seen so far kind of proves that.”
Payton’s suspension ended in January, shortly after the regular season concluded with the Saints finishing 7-9 and out of the playoffs for the first time in four years. Upon his return, Payton quickly made changes to a defense that gave up an NFL worst-ever 7,042 yards last season, bringing in Rob Ryan as his new coordinator, which also meant changing alignments from a 4-3 (four lineman, three linebackers) to a 3-4.
When the voluntary weight and conditioning program began in April, players were greeted by Payton’s new leaner, more muscular physique, as well as the crossfit regimen he used to get that way.
“He looks good,” punter Thomas Morstead said. “The first time I saw him, I said, ‘Hey, you look different.’ And he said, ‘Hey man, when you go to jail, you either work out every day or you play bingo — and I hate bingo.’
“Coach Payton lives the way he is,” Morstead added. “He’s got a brashness and aggressiveness and a confidence that rubs off on guys. So he comes back kind of yoked-up looking and he says, ‘Hey, you guys can be yoked-up with me.”’