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Year away energized Saints' Payton

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Jen Floyd Engel

Jen Floyd Engel, selected as the top columnist in the 2012 Associated Press Sports Editors annual contest, started working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 and became a columnist in 2003 before joining FOXSports.com. Sports opinions? She's never short of them. And love her or hate her, she'll be just another one of the boys. Follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.

Sean Payton called Parcells, then Gruden. He needed a scheme, advice, anything to help him stop this offense that had befuddled him.

Film had been little help, too grainy and not shot from a lift.

“We had every defense under the sun. We couldn’t find the football,” Payton said Wednesday. “I still can’t find the football.”

The New Orleans Saints coach who had engineered a defeat of Peyton Manning and his Colts in the Super Bowl never did figure out how to stop that sixth-grade single wing. As he recounted all of the idiosyncrasies of coaching his son’s team during his year-long NFL ban — copying playbooks at Kinko’s, parents filming games for scouting purposes — what struck me were not the details but the delivery. He reminded me very much of the young Payton I covered in Dallas years ago, all fired up and ready to set the world on fire. He looked fitter, happier, energized.

And in this “everything happens for a reason” world in which we live, by all appearances, it is all too easy to say this is Payton’s why. Yes, Bountygate and being suspended for a year was hell, but just look at him now.

It is perfect, tidy, and Payton wants no part.

“Look, I don’t know that everything happens for a reason,” Payton said. “I would say everything happens.”

The reason is not determined until later, determined by you and what you do with the bad thing that happened. Most importantly, do you stay stuck in that place? Or do you keep moving forward?

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Payton stayed in that angry, bitter place for a couple of weeks. The whole thing felt grossly unfair and excessive and not really his fault.

“At some point, knowing what you have to do, you have to get past that negative energy and get on to what you are having to do,” he said.

There is an analogy to be made to 2006 when Hurricane Katrina decimated the city, he said. It all could feel overwhelming and the options were self-pity or storm the beaches. The running joke became to blame Katrina for everything. Lights go out in a meeting. It must be Katrina. The defense is unable to get off the field on third down. It must be Katrina. It is easy to see how that could become Bountygate if the Saints are not careful.

“We are not going to use this as an excuse,” Payton said. “If we keep throwing lefts and rights, it will linger into 2013.”

This is what we do, all of us. We feel wronged. We keep fighting that battle. We want justice or fairness or vindication. The problem is it just keeps us stuck in that awful place where the bad thing happened.

There are two kinds of bad things, those that happen to us and those that we do to ourselves. What I know for sure is that tragedies we inflict on ourselves are harder to stomach. There is a randomness in a hurricane; there is no intent. It is different when the lapse in judgment is yours, when you know the awful thing could have been prevented if you had only been smarter or kinder or paying attention.

This is where Payton is. There is no doubt then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams selfishly took a lot of people down with him with whatever BS he concocted and enabled. This is the offshoot of the bad things that happen to us. This is the unspeakable cruelty we sometimes inflict on one another for no reason other than we can or we are selfish. And I have to believe the karma train eventually comes for those people.

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The truth is that Payton had a hand in his demise, and he knows it. This is why he spent so much time Wednesday talking about how the real energy infusion he feels from his year away is in the willingness to go into the hard places and confront and address every little thing.

He analogized this to parenting, and anybody with children knows this is an apt comparison. It is a slippery slope from no TV ever to Mickey Mouse marathons, and it is paved with the fatigue of having to teach the same lessons again and again.

You have to be willing to confront and address every little thing because when little things slide, big things follow. It is why you see young coaches do well, why you saw the biggest crowds at the NFC coaches breakfast around Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll and Chip Kelly, why you see coaches burn out because staying on year after year after year is hard.

This is why it was always dangerous to think Payton’s return solved everything for the Saints. It mattered how he returned, and I am not talking about this very gauzy idea of energy. This is about getting over what happened and getting on with what needs to be done and doing so without baggage.

Listening to Payton, he is there.

And this makes the Saints dangerous, very dangerous.

Unless they face the single wing team. Then all bets are off.
 

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