METAIRIE, La. — Nearly six months after Sean Payton was officially allowed back into the NFL and more than two months after the first organized team activity, it’s hard to go five minutes without hearing someone ask about the coach’s return.
The players know this will continue. So does Payton.
Yes, Payton is back on the sideline, they say. Yes, he wasn’t here a year ago, they agree. Yes, it’s nice to have their leader back, they say.
But for all the boilerplate answers reporters have received over the past four months, quarterback Drew Brees finally broke the cycle this weekend.
“To be honest with you – and you guys are probably going to keep asking that question; I’m sure we’ll hear it a thousand times just like we already have throughout OTAs – listen,” Brees started, “it’s old hat. Last year and all that is in our rearview mirror.
“So, it’s not even like I think for a second like, hey, here’s Sean Payton standing next to me. The day he was back at the start of April it was hey, we’re right back at it.”
Payton missed all of the 2012 season while serving a suspension for his part in what the NFL called a pay-for-injury bounty system during three seasons beginning in 2009. The system allegedly was run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and led to the suspensions of general manager Mickey Loomis and Williams, too.
But what Brees said is not necessarily true. Fifty-nine of the roster’s 87 active players have never played for Payton. None of them knew coming into camp just how intense Payton could be and how much of an eagle-eye he uses to keep tabs of what’s going on.
That’s more than two-thirds of a roster that are getting their initial lessons in Camp Payton.
So while it may be “old hat” for Brees, it’s not for a player like linebacker Curtis Lofton, who led the team with 157 tackles in 2012 playing for two head coaches and a different defensive coordinator than he’s learning under now.
“Last year, I really didn't have an understanding (when) everyone kept saying it’s not the same without coach Payton,” Lofton said. “It's just different and having him back this year and getting to know him, it's a big difference. It's night and day.”
Lofton said it’s not that last year’s staff didn’t meet the high bar set by the franchise in the six seasons prior to 2012. But having to answer for mistakes is at a higher premium now than under then-interim head coaches Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt or then-defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
“I’m not saying that the coaches of anyone did a bad job last year, it's just a difference,” Lofton said. “He holds everyone accountable. It's a tight ship. He challenges everyone and is a competitor. I think that's what we kind of somewhat missed last year. It's great to have him back this year.”
Tight end Jimmy Graham, who had played for Payton, agreed.
“It feels good to have Sean back,” Graham said. “Nothing goes unnoticed. Even through the walk-through. It kind of reminds me of rookie year when he was taking me off to the side and consoling me, if it’s good or bad.”