Sean Payton is back in control of the New Orleans Saints, ready to put the Bounty Scandal behind him and motivated to start a fresh quest for another Super Bowl Championship.
When Saints Training Camp opened Thursday, one of Payton's first orders of business was to voice appreciation for the relationship he has with team owner Tom Benson despite the ups and downs of last season, including rumors he would be the head coach of a different team right now.
"Every year that I've been here - and I'm going on my eighth season along with Mickey Loomis - it's gotten stronger and stronger. I, as a coach, appreciate more and more who I work for and the organization I work for. All that talk this offseason, so much of it was just speculation. I think I have the best job in football. I've got an owner that's been 100 percent supportive of what we do, and that's the number one reason why we've won. That's not necessarily the norm. That doesn't exist everywhere. I feel a sense of urgency to do my job better than ever before because of that," says Payton.
On the field, Payton confirms he will indeed take back the role of play caller. One priority: increase the balance of the run game and take pressure off of Drew Brees, who threw an uncharacteristically high number of interceptions last year at 19.
The Saints first round draft pick from 2011, Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is on notice this is the season to prove his worth.
"We've got high expectations for Mark, and I know he does as well for himself. He's in great shape right now. I know he's anxious in being healthy and probably going into his third year in as good of shape as he's ever been," says Payton.
Loomis says Ingram needs to remain that way.
"I think he just needs to stay healthy. That would be a real positive. In the past, we have utilized the talents of a lot of the running backs on this roster, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet. Obviously we will continue to do that. Sean Payton has a great talent for identifying special and unique talents that each guy has and taking advantage of that and we will continue to do that. Obviously Mark is a really fine running back and can run inside and outside and be a part of the passing game. He is much more versatile I think than people give him credit for, so we are going to expect a good season, a healthy season from him."
As for No. 9, Brees says he isn't "angry" about what happened last season, but he is "very focused" on making this season count.
"Just locked in. I'm on a mission. Like I said, I walk into training camp, and it is all about football. There is nothing else swirling around, or at least nothing else that we are going to allow to distract us."
The Black and Gold version of the 3-4 defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan promises to be a focal point this training camp. So far, both Payton and Loomis are confident and encouraged by what they've seen.
"It is great so far, I think he is everything that we thought he was as a coach,and I think our players are responding to him in a real positive manner. We will get into the meat and potatoes of this training camp and I expect that to continue," says Loomis.
"He's brought that enthusiasm, it's contagious to that room. They've responded very well. The coaches have worked very hard teaching the scheme and making sure the players understand what goes along with good defense," Payton said.
Saints Safety Malcolm Jenkins also gives the change in defensive philosophy high marks.
"It is a big switch schematically and in theory, but in execution its really not. I think the good thing is it fits our personnel really well. We have a lot of players that are very versatile and can play different positions. When you have that 3-4 scheme and you can add those types of players, I think that's when it becomes dangerous. It's really more similar to what we did when Gregg (Williams) was here so a lot of guys are familiar with most of it already. I don't think it will be a big transition for us."
Obviously there are lots of questions left to be answered on the field, but clearly both Loomis and Payton feel confident about where this team is headed. Starting Friday morning, New Orleans will begin to find out if those feelings are valid.
Five players will not be participating because of injuries: Victor Butler, Roman Harper, Patrick Robinson, Marques Colston and Kenny Stills.
Butler is recovering from a torn ACL, but Loomis has not placed him on injured reserve yet and is encouraged by Butler's rehab progress.
"We don't have to do that, as long as we keep him on our 90-man roster. We will see how his rehab goes. If there is a possibility, if he could be back before the end of the season, maybe into a playoff run, we might have that opportunity to designate him as a player that could return."
The other four players injuries are described as minor, at least for now.
Patrick Robinson's scoped knee seems to be the worst and could keep him out until pre-season games are underway.
Colston (foot), Harper (sports hernia, abs) and Stills (wrist) should all return within about a week.