Payton sets no-nonsense tone early in camp

Published 12:04 am Sunday, July 30, 2006

None were immune to a stern critique from the New Orleans Saints’ new coach — not even a veteran cornerback pedaling a stationary bicycle while nursing a bruised heel.

Sean Payton had pledged to mind every last detail as he tries to rebuild a team coming off of a 3-13 season, and on Saturday he demonstrated what he was talking about.

One moment he was immersed in a cacophony of barking assistants, whistles and cracking pads as about 80 players hustled through drills. Suddenly, he was marching briskly toward the sideline, where Mike McKenzie was pedaling leisurely and chatting with a few people nearby.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Payton ordered McKenzie to pick up the pace.

Undrafted rookies and low-profile free agents were struggling in the Mississippi heat in hopes of making the roster, and the last thing Payton wanted them to see was one of the Saints’ defensive leaders appearing to take it easy on the sideline.

Payton is a rookie head coach and former college quarterback who isn’t shy about sharing his enthusiasm for the range of offensive schemes he’ll have the liberty to draw up with Drew Brees at quarterback and both Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister in the backfield.

Yet he’s mindful of, or even haunted by, the mistakes he saw while watching film of the 2005 squad.

“You begin turning the team around by just starting on trying to do the little things right,” Payton said. “Trying to play better special teams, trying to eliminate the turnovers, trying to eliminate the penalties — if you can identify some of the things that can keep you from winning, that’s a start.”

Payton routinely sticks his nose in the middle of drills, often huddling with quarterbacks and receivers during simple passing drills. He wears long sleeves in hot weather, as if setting an example that even he should have the mental toughness to overcome physical discomfort during practice.

While he used to be a player, even briefly taking snaps as a replacement quarterback for the Chicago Bears during an NFL player’s strike in 1987, Payton’s all-business tone on the practice field hardly resembles that of a so-called “player’s coach.”

“It’s different,” said McAllister, grinning. “You may not like it as a player, but he’s the coach. It’s his team. … You just have to respect it as a player, don’t get your lip poked out over it. He’s telling the truth and he just has his own way of saying it.”

The first thing Payton wanted to know after the team’s first meeting at 9 a.m. on Friday was what kind of shape his players were in. He ran them through timed 300-yard shuttle sprints. They later returned for a two-hour, twenty-minute practice that afternoon, before beginning a long stretch of double sessions on Saturday morning at 8:50.

Payton plans to dedicate short portions of each practice to prepare for less frequently seen plays, such as free kicks.

The coach referred to the exercise as “just teaching them to be a smarter team. Just rehearsing something that might happen in a game rather than rehearsing at the last minute and trying to execute it.”

Saturday’s practice wound down with simple plays in which the quarterback takes a snap and kneels down with the ball — a play winning teams become quite familiar with as they run out the clock in the fourth quarter.

“That’s pretty fundamental,” Payton said. “We thought we’d just start with that one.”