This strange, uncomfortable offseason in New Orleans took a big step over the weekend with five rookie minicamp practices. After 970 practices in the Sean Payton era, the Saints hit the field for the first time since 2006 without their head coach involved.
"How would Pittsburgh react if Chuck Knoll was gone? Or how would Dallas react if Tom Landry wasn't there? Or San Francisco without Bill Walsh?" interim head coach Joe Vitt said via Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Sean's put those kinds of numbers up. He has that kind of recognition in the league. Nobody can take his place."
Vitt may be stretching it with his historical comparisons, but it's a fair point. Outside of Bill Belichick and maybe Andy Reid, no head coach in the league controls his entire organization more than Payton. It's a huge void to fill, no matter how well Drew Brees knows the offense.
If nothing else, Payton often won't be far away. The suspended coach has a new downtown office in Benson Tower, which is essentially right next to the Superdome. Payton required league approval to rent the office. (We're sure Saints owner Tom Benson will give him a good deal.) If Payton wants to talk to a team official about a non-football matter, he has to do so by speaker phone in the presence of Saints legal counsel.
"We miss everything we know about (Payton)," offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. "He's special. He has some magic to him."
Payton won't soon be forgotten by the 2012 Saints. The team is going to leave Payton's chair empty on the team bus and plane all season. They are doing the same thing in team meetings.
That's an idea that Payton would surely approve of.