METAIRIE, La. – For the first time in his career with the New Orleans Saints, quarterback Drew Brees walked into the team’s Metairie headquarters and didn’t see Sean Payton.
But Brees is confident of one thing, even if the suspended coach isn’t physically around: Payton’s voice will be in the back of the quarterback’s head throughout this 2012 campaign.
“I know it’s coming before it comes to the point where now, his voice is going to be in my head whether it’s actually coming out of his mouth or now,” Brees said. “He’s present even though he’s not present.”
Payton is suspended for the 2012 season, part of the penalties NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed down this spring for what the league alleges was a bounty program. The coach was suspended for not stopping the pay for pain program.
Nevertheless, the way Payton has recruited players and coaches since starting the 2006 season with the club has set the franchise up for long-term success, players and coaches agreed Tuesday.
“It’s not like we’re walking into this with a bunch of rookies,” Brees said. “We’ve been down some interesting roads before. Now, this is uncharted territory for us but I know we’re equipped to handle it whatever comes our way.”
That includes acting head coach Joe Vitt, who has taken over the interim duties twice in his 30-plus year career. He did it in St. Louis and again this past season when Payton went down with a severe knee injury that forced surgery and lengthy rehabilitation.
According to safety Roman Harper, the wise-cracking coach has been mellowed a bit by the overall head-coaching duties. But he still thinks he’s the man for the job.
“He’s going to tell us exactly what we need to hear and how we need to get motivated,” Harper said. “He’s going to let us exactly know what angle he’s coming from about what he wants us to get done. That’s why I like Joe and he’s going to be great for us. He knows the heartbeat of our team.”
Still, Payton’s presence will be missed, from being the head coach to being a friend and mentor to those around him.
“I will tell you this, there is a huge hole in my chest, personally and professionally because I am not around him,” Vitt said. “I’m not going to lie to you. I miss him. I know Mickey misses him. Mr. Benson misses him and our players miss him.”
Yet, Payton’s last message to his players and coaches before beginning the suspension was “Do your job,” a mantra that has become the team’s motto this season.
And that’s how Vitt, Brees and Harper are going to focus on the field this training camp instead of what’s swirling off of it.
“But because of the respect that we have for Sean and the only thing that he asked us to do was to do our jobs, that is what we are going to do,” Vitt said. “The next time we see him, I hope that he is going to be proud of us for the job that we have done and we haven’t let him down.”