Payton's new home shouldn't be an issue with Saints, fans

Sean Payton can live wherever he likes.

His head-coaching contract with the New Orleans Saints says nothing to the contrary, obviously, which is why he had no trouble with making his recent move to Dallas.

Saints management says it doesn't have a problem with it, even though team owner Tom Benson reportedly rejected Payton's attempt to have a similar living arrangement when he took the job in 2006. Drew Brees says he doesn't have a problem with it.

The rest of us shouldn't have a problem with it, either.

Although Texas is where Payton, his wife and children will call home, and where the kids are going to attend school, the coach still has a place to live in New Orleans. He's still going to occupy his post on a full-time basis. He's still every bit the face and voice of the Saints that he was before this much-publicized real-estate transaction.

But it's also easy to understand why there are some people in New Orleans who do have a problem with it -- why Payton has been subjected to criticism from media, fans and politicians in the Crescent City and throughout Louisiana, and probably everywhere else that Saints faithful can be found.

A portion of the backlash understandably stems from a heightened sensitivity among the folks in post-Katrina New Orleans that theirs is a city that is easy to abandon, because so many people have. Even after five years, the wounds left by the hurricane's devastation remain fresh and extremely painful, and the rebuilding is far from complete.

The Saints' success in that time, culminating with a Super Bowl victory, has been an enduring symbol of hope. Payton's identity has transcended being the leader of football players; in many ways, he has held a role of showing the way for numerous others who refused to let Katrina and its lingering impact drive them elsewhere. He reinforced his acceptance and appreciation of that responsibility in the best-selling book, "Home Team," released after the Saints' win in Super Bowl XLIV.

Members of Payton's "extended squad" have kept fighting and believing that their perseverance would pay off, just as it did for their favorite team. Their theme has consistently been: "Don't give up on us because we won't give up on ourselves."

Moving to Texas hardly means that Payton has given up on New Orleans' comeback, but you can understand why some people see it that way. After all, there was plenty of discussion about the Saints, themselves, possibly heading to Texas for good when Katrina's damage left the Louisiana Superdome uninhabitable for the 2005 season and the Saints' schedule became one, long road trip.

There have been national critics of those local/regional critics, essentially accusing them of playing the "Katrina card" in an attempt to make Payton feel guilty. I don't buy that.

What I do buy, however, is the concern/discomfort/panic that fans feel when they see the man who played a vital role in finally making a winner out of a franchise with a long history of futility putting some distance between himself and their community. Payton has done that, even if most of his preseason and regular-season days and nights will continue to be spent at the team facility.

Saints fans -- like those of other NFL teams and pro franchises and major-college athletic programs -- want to believe that their coach is as much a part of their town and all that goes with it as they are. They get that players tend to spend the offseason somewhere else (often where, or near where, they were born and raised). They get that the owner might be a full-time resident of a different state and pretty much only be around the club on game day.

But they expect the coach to be one of the primary constants in and around the franchise's digs. They want to believe that he's spending the better part of each waking hour there, along with his assistant coaches and the general manager, perpetually trying to figure out how to win every game and make the team better.

Can Payton come up with as many good ideas for the Saints when he's hanging out at his luxury home in Westlake, Texas, as he did when he hung out at his luxury home in Mandeville, La.? Of course he can.

But this is a perception issue, a potential public-relations problem that Payton has created for himself. There will be fans and media who will be suspicious of the fact that Payton has a home in Cowboys territory. Dots will be connected between the fact that Payton once was offensive coordinator of the Cowboys and remains very close with their owner, Jerry Jones, and has two years left on his Saints contract. Dots also will be connected between the fact that the people Payton cares about the most in the world, his wife and children, are in Texas while he's in New Orleans and the potential distraction that their separation will cause when the season is in full gear.

If the Saints struggle, Payton would feel the heat if the move never happened, but now he is bound to feel it even more. If they keep winning, and get back to another Super Bowl, no one in New Orleans will care if he has a home in Texas or on Mars.


» I loved Jim Washburn's frankness when, upon being introduced as the new defensive line coach in Philadelphia, he explained to reporters why he picked the Eagles. "It was really a no-brainer because this place has got a quarterback," he said. "It's about that simple, no matter what anybody tells you."

Washburn's reference was to Michael Vick, but he wasn't nearly as flattering when he talked about the team he left behind, pointing out that there hasn't been a "quarterback at Tennessee since Steve McNair, God rest his soul."


» Something like this could easily get lost among all of the chatter generated by labor negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA, but it's worth noting that at least one player has the right idea when it comes to approaching a possible work stoppage. Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson was quoted by the Detroit Free Press as saying he expects a lockout and, on the assumption organized workouts aren't held, players must "stay focused as a team and not lose sight of our goals in 2011" on the assumption there will be a season.

In the league's two previous labor disputes, both of which disrupted the season, clubs that succeeded when the strike ended were able to maintain some level of cohesion even though their players didn't have coaching supervision, and conducted individual workouts and practices away from the team facility. Just as some teams collapsed because of their inability (or unwillingness) to adapt to the circumstances, others saw it as an opportunity to seize.

Given that the Lions won their final four games, they seem to perfectly fit the profile of a squad that could capitalize on the opportunity to thrive when others proceed as if they're simply on an extended vacation.

» Assuming the labor dispute will be resolved soon enough for offseason business to be done, no one in the league is likely to be busier than Kansas City Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli. His team has more than two dozen players whose contracts have expired.

» How's this for a refreshing perspective? Even though he caught 82 passes in 2010 for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson says he isn't going to demand a renegotiation of his relatively modest contract from when he joined the team as a seventh-round draft pick because his high-end production was only for one year.

At a time when the money conversation isn't exactly doing any favors for the NFL's image, Johnson has done plenty to improve the already soaring popularity he enjoyed for his part in putting some desperately needed spark into the Bills' offense. He probably can add some non-Bills fans to his growing list of admirers.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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