NEW ORLEANS -- Off in the distance, along a far temporary fence that borders the practice fields of the New Orleans Saints' training facility, coach Sean Payton is rounding the corner in a feverish effort to fulfill the autograph request of every remaining fan.
Two minutes pass. He'll probably stop soon. Five more minutes pass. Man, he really is glad to be back. Then, 10 more minutes. This dude has some seriously renewed energy. Twenty minutes and he's still going. He's not taking anything for granted!
The longer Payton goes, enduring a scorching afternoon after Wednesday's minicamp practice, the more opportunities for symbolism he provides. And for the most part, the explanations for Payton's patience are probably pretty accurate.
Yes, Payton really is thrilled to be back. Yes, he really does have renewed energy and stamina, having turned his "baby fat" (linebacker Will Smith's words) into muscle after a year of CrossFit training. And yes, he really does have a greater appreciation for this fan base and this sport.
"He definitely seems happier than we've ever seen him," wide receiver Lance Moore said Wednesday. "That time off definitely gave him a chance to reflect and realize how much he needs this game, how much he misses this game. And we're just as thankful to have him back."
MOTIVATED BY THE FUTURE
On his first chance to address his whole team in March, Payton had more than a few messages to get off his chest. For as much as he wanted to move forward, he knew he couldn't ignore the dread of 2012 (both on and off the field) forever.
"The first day we met as a team, he wanted to recap on what happened and leave it right there," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "And I think that's where the team left it."
Payton's final words that day, after venting about everything from the situation that got him suspended to the moments of the 2012 season that disappointed him most, set the tone that has endured ever since: Be motivated by the possibilities of the future -- not by the bitterness of the past.
"I think he's done a good job leaving 2012 right where it was," Jenkins said. "All the focus has been about moving forward. Nobody talks about it. It's out of sight, out of mind, really, because of the way he approaches it. It has allowed everyone else to move on, as well."
Everyone knows the Saints will forever feel hosed by the bounty situation, but the suspensions have been served. Everyone knows the defense stunk it up in 2012, but Payton hired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to bring back an aggressive 3-4 scheme. Actions have been taken. Efforts to improve have been implemented.
Perhaps most notably, however, isn't what the Saints have done to put the past behind them; it is the positive vibe -- an energy that truly lacks any sense of resentment for the past -- that surprisingly exists within a training facility where bitterness reigned for a full season in 2012.
And much of that can be credited to Payton.
"The atmosphere has been awesome, man," guard Jahri Evans said. "Guys have that sense of urgency. They want to learn from the mistakes of last year and get better. People want to be here. They want to work out. We're all about getting wins and representing the New Orleans Saints the right way."
HEALTHY AND HAPPY
Let's just be clear: Payton looks jacked these days. We're talking legitimate pectorals here. Not just a little weight loss or a healthier look. Real muscles.
|The changes to Sean Payton's physique have been a popular subject among Saints players during recent team activities. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press/)|
"He doesn't look like the same person!" Moore said.
"A little transformation," Evans said. "I guess he got his mind off it, got into the weight room."
"He's a big health freak now," Jenkins said.
Oh, his players have definitely noticed. And sometimes, given Payton's new addiction to the CrossFit workout program that has made him look more like a player on the practice squad than a head coach, it isn't always a good thing.
Players joked this week that Payton has tried to bring some of his workout techniques, which he mastered during his one-year suspension, to the team's weight room. Not everyone (OK, not really anyone) is a fan of the competitive workout "circuits" that Payton suggested they do during the offseason.
"He forgets these workouts aren't made for guys who are 6-foot-7, 265 pounds," tight end Jimmy Graham joked.
Here's what players do enjoy: Payton's energy, his zest for life. It's something everyone recognizes. And during a conversation at the NFL's annual meetings in Arizona, Payton made it clear it's no coincidence that he feels so good.
"You have more time to work out, more time to do certain things, when you're not coaching football," Payton said. "But for me, it was probably easier to come back into it without feeling that grind of just having finished a 20-week season."
"Sometimes you need to step back and get perspective," Fox said. "Biblically (Deuteronomy 15:1), it says you should take a year off every seven years. Now, this wasn't the way he'd like to do it, but it happened, and he's making the most of a tough situation. He had time to work out, to get healthy, to get fresh. And you can tell."
Fox said a little time off -- as he learned in 1996, when he left the Oakland Raiders suddenly during the preseason for an unexpected few months away from the game -- can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.
While Payton isn't likely to view last year's time off as any type of "blessing," his ability to come back refreshed might be far less of a blessing for the teams he's about to face.
"I mean, he's got that energy," Smith said. "He had a year off. He's been working out. He's gotten rid of that baby fat. Guys are getting fired up about that."
TAKING BACK HIS TEAM
During Tuesday's practice, as Payton and quarterback Drew Brees huddled together between repetitions, it looked like a very typical scene. After all, Payton and Brees have spent countless hours like this.
It might be hard to find two people -- yes, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick included -- who have a better player-coach relationship than Brees and Payton. But here's a wild realization: Last year at this time, neither of these two men were around.
"People sometimes forget that Drew wasn't around last year, either," said Graham, pointing out Brees' contract holdout. "We're finally to a point where we have no distractions, and it's a very welcomed feeling."
Here's what else some forget: A year before that, Brees and Payton couldn't work together during the offseason because of the NFL lockout. And a year before that, the Saints were coming off a Super Bowl win, which led to an offseason that many admit was filled with off-the-field distractions as a result of marketing opportunities.
"We know what kind of team we've been since 2006," Evans said. "And we're trying to get back to that level."
Having both Brees and Payton back together surely will help in that process, even if the Saints still have plenty of questions heading into 2013. Most notably on offense, they'll need to establish a starter at left tackle. And on defense, where the Saints gave up more yards than any team in NFL history last year, the unit must quickly grow accustomed to a completely new system under Ryan.
It will be a tough task, no doubt. But as Payton endured that hot sun Wednesday, looking energized as he signed those autographs after hours of coaching, there's one aspect of the moment that most certainly stands out above the rest: Payton is ready.
And the rest of the league might want to take notice.
"Listen, it's good to be back," Payton said. "There are a lot of things we have to do, a lot of things we have to improve on. But I'm excited. It's certainly something, when you're removed from it for seven to eight months, you do get anxious.
"And certainly, you appreciate it."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington