Brett Martel / The Associated Press
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."'
CrossFit training involves timed sets of both weightlifting and conditioning activities. A number of Saints players have divided themselves into teams and held CrossFit competitions to ratchet up the intensity even more.
Payton, who also played at the golf outing on Monday, said the start of what are known as OTAs -- and which are voluntary offseason practices without pads -- will mark the beginning of a key transitional period for the defense, as coaches evaluate how players returning from last year's squad fit best in the new scheme.
Defensive captain Will Smith, for example, will begin work at outside linebacker, rather than the defensive end spot at which he has played his whole career.
"That's where we'll start him," Payton said, noting that outside linebackers often play pass-rushing roles in a 3-4 scheme. "We can play him right and left, but I think initially that right outside position would be very similar to what he's played for us in the past."
Payton said he envisions veteran Jonathan Vilma as one of the two middle linebackers in the new scheme.
"There's just got to be some flexibility when it comes to the transition," Payton said. "There'll be a few players that will learn more than one spot."
Smith said he'll have to get used to starting plays in an upright stance, whereas before he crouched down with a hand on the turf. But beyond that, he said learning the new position is "not that bad."
"I may have a couple (pass) coverage responsibilities, but for the most part I'm just rushing (the passer) and playing the run," Smith said.
For Smith, the bigger difference -- and a welcome one -- is heading into a season without any bounty accusations or possible suspensions hanging over his head, and having Payton back at team headquarters.
In 2012, Smith initially was issued a four-game suspension, and Vilma a full-season ban, for what the NFL said were their roles as leaders in a bounty program that rewarded big plays -- including big and sometimes injury-causing hits -- with improper cash bonuses. However, player suspensions were never served and ultimately thrown out on appeal.
"It's definitely a different year," Smith said. "Sean coming back brings a whole different element to the team. ... Nothing's been the same since he's been back. I think that's perfect for the group to move on, putting everything behind us and start a whole completely new year."
The OTAs, which are scheduled to be closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, and open to media on Thursday, also mark the first time players acquired in 2012, such as starting guard Ben Grubbs, will have a chance to work with Payton on the gridiron.
"I was looking forward to getting a chance to play with coach Payton," Grubbs said. "He's one of the main reasons why I signed here."