NEW ORLEANS - The Payton Cliff has been averted.
And three days after Christmas, the Saints’ fan base got the best present of all, unwrapping the knowledge that their franchise is in good hands.
Forget the talk that Payton was going elsewhere.
Too much was right in New Orleans for him to truly be interested elsewhere.
Payton changed the face of the franchise in 2006 when he was hired and saw the ensuing love that came from those who followed the Saints. They put him on a pedestal, allowing him to be who he wanted to be.
That certainly helped on the field, where that confidence grew into cockiness and brought a swagger to the club and to the fans never seen before.
There was Drew Brees, the NFL’s premier quarterback and one that led the Saints and Payton to their first Super Bowl championship. He’s a top quarterback in a quarterback-driven league and, together, they could be dominant for years to come.
Payton also knows he’ll have zero meddling from the front office or anywhere else. He can run the entire program, something he would have a hard time having elsewhere.
But in my mind, there’s more. There’s something else.
Payton had a chance to watch as the Saints struggled this season, crumbling early under the weight of the suspensions and everything that had been lost.
Instead of following up a 13-3 season with another brilliant one, New Orleans is 7-8 heading into the final game and out of the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Back in the fold, Payton can come back and be New Orleans’ knight in shining armor, the savior set once again to right the ship and bring glory back to the country’s zaniest of cities.
Not that it’ll be easy.
The landscape that Payton will come back to is different from the one he left.
While the emergence of Atlanta and Seattle won’t make his job any easier, it’s an internal problem that will give him the hardest time in his return.
New Orleans is going to be against the salary cap if changes aren’t made.
Payton will have to find a way to build a team that can compete possibly without cap casualties Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma and maybe even Roman Harper. Those three alone are set to take up around $29 million of cap space in 2013.
The offensive line is a year older and could lose one of its stalwarts in left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who is a free agent this offseason. The receivers, too, are a year older and also could lose a key player in receiver Devery Henderson, who also is a free agent.
Still, Payton has done this before and is the perfect man for the job. The year away from the game likely served as a humbling experience.
It also likely refreshed him. When he’s reinstated, he can hit the ground running with fresh mind and more energy.
Payton also has in his back pocket anger. He has had a full year to let what happened this past season slowly come to a boil.
There’s little doubt that he’ll be motivated when he comes back, motivated to prove that he is the difference between the playoffs and not making them.
Indeed, the Saints stepped way back from a cliff they didn’t want to go over.
It’s not 2013 quite yet, but it’s already a better year for the franchise.