PALM BEACH, Fla. -- His one-year league suspension has yet to even start, he continues to mull over his appeal options, and it's still far from clear as to who will replace him this season in New Orleans on an interim basis. But in reality, Sean Payton began focusing on the rest of his NFL head coaching career here Tuesday morning, taking a first fledgling step in the attempt to restore a reputation that has been badly damaged by the Saints bounty scandal.
Meeting with the media Tuesday morning in The Breakers hotel, where the NFL's annual meeting is being conducted, Payton, for the first time, took questions on his role in the bounty program.
Payton was at times both contrite and evasive in the almost 18-minute interview, but just showing up and talking here at the league meeting was a significant step, one he has been counseled to take by those who realize that this gathering doubles as a future job interview of sorts with 31 potential employers -- the owners of every other NFL team except the Saints.
Some day, and who knows when, Payton will not be the head coach in New Orleans. And that's when it could well matter how he conducted himself here this week, with his words and actions speaking either to a willingness to accept responsibility and learn the lesson of his mistakes, or being used to set a defiant tone that could come back to hurt his chances of being hired for a second NFL head coaching job by one of these very same owners.
With that kind of backdrop providing the potential long-term stakes, Payton stood up Tuesday and began the process of lancing the boil of his team's bounty saga, choosing his words carefully at times but also taking blame for the circumstances that have him facing a life without football for the first time in 39 years.
"No, I accept this,'' said Payton, when asked if he feels he's being punished for conduct that has gone on elsewhere in the league. "I've heard that argument. I think trying to really look closely at how we, and how I can improve is probably a better way for me to handle this than to kind of vent or to look outwardly at other programs, and I've tried to take that approach.''
That part of Payton's message was clear: He was here to take his medicine, and accept his punishment, and even if an appeal is filed for the purpose of either buying a little more time or to get further clarification on the limits of his suspension, he has no intent of fighting the league on the basic facts of the bounty scandal.
"You're disappointed. You're disappointed in yourself that it got to this point,'' said Payton, asked his reaction to the year-long suspension handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week. "I think we're trained as coaches to begin preparation right away. I find myself reflecting on it, and you go through a lot of emotions.''
Payton said he had no plans to address the league's owners directly on Tuesday, so another mea culpa session beyond his media interview obviously wasn't something he had any interest in. He will leave Palm Beach this afternoon, and will not subject himself to the NFC coaches media breakfast here on Wednesday morning.
Without a doubt, Payton was in damage-control mode in his comments to reporters, and in several cases he strained to deflect or side-step questions about the depth of his awareness and involvement in his team's bounty program, which was led the past three years by ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Asked how he did indeed let things get to his point, Payton offered no real explanation, but intimated that he allowed Williams too much autonomy in his role of overseeing the New Orleans defense, while he was pre-occupied with the Saints offense and play-calling duties.
"Anything that happens in the framework of your team and your program, you're responsible for, and that's a lesson I've learned,'' he said. "It's one (where) it's easy to get carried away with a certain side of the ball, more involved offensively or defensively, and that's something I regret.''
That's a subtle but effective way of saying this was all Williams' doing, but I'm taking the bullet on it because I'm the man at the top and the buck stops here. It's partly taking accountability, and partly shifting it in another direction. It may even be an accurate assessment of what went on the past three years in New Orleans, but even if Payton didn't know enough to control his defensive coordinator, he should have, and thus his attempt to escape some of the blame fell flat in that case.
As did his answer when asked about Goodell's charge that Payton and others in New Orleans repeatedly lied about and covered up the existence of a bounty program, even as recently as just weeks ago. Payton's claims that he hasn't seen a copy of the league's report and thus couldn't respond to the charge that he told his Saints assistants to have "your ducks in a row'' frankly wasn't remotely believable.
"I haven't seen specifically the report,'' he said. "It's hard for me to go through each item line by line.'' As to the pattern of deception the league charged the Saints with, Payton offered only: "I saw part of what (Goodell) said and specifically I don't know that he made mention of that directly to me. That being said, we take his office very seriously and the role he has, and in the two trips to New York, I made sure to do everything in my power to answer the questions honestly.''
I'm quite certain Goodell and the league's investigators have a different view of Payton's responses to their inquiries, but at this point both sides have probably said all they're going to say on the matter of truthfulness, and Tuesday was about looking toward the future for the Saints head coach.
Payton acknowledged he will likely make a decision on whether to file an appeal to Goodell in the next two or three days, and has talked regularly with his mentor and potential interim replacement Bill Parcells recently and will do so again here today in South Florida. But he called speculation that Parcells might coach the Saints in 2012 premature and said that he and team general manager Mickey Loomis were still considering their options on the interim coaching front.
Payton, even with a league suspension, has options, too. He admitted he might entertain an offer to serve as an NFL analyst with FOX during his year away from the sideline, and said one of the benefits of appealing Goodell's decision might be in allowing him and the team more time to execute a succession plan on the coaching front this season.
In addition, Payton said he has not talked with Williams any time recently, and said he did not believe that any opposing player was ever injured because of the Saints' bounty program. But after the details of his job's immediate challenges were well hashed out, Payton reflected on the reality that he'll miss a football season for the first time since before he began his Pop Warner playing career.
"They've been difficult,'' Payton said, of his most recent days. "Challenging. It's interesting, you find out how close some of your friends are. I said this in the statement: The fans back in New Orleans have been amazing. My peers, guys that I'm very close with in this league, the players on our team. And really it's like a family. That's the thing that will get you through something like this.''
Payton took a small but important first step Tuesday toward getting through the storm brought on by his team's bounty scandal, and rehabilitating a career and a reputation that has taken an undeniable hit. It's not so much his current job that he has to fight for, as much as his next one. He needed to come here and own up to his mistakes, and show the NFL and its owners that he now understands the gravity of his situation. For Payton, it's lesson learned, I think. Strangely enough, his comeback has begun even before he went away.