Back in 1997, Payton was leaving his post as quarterbacks coach at Illinois for a position on the Maryland coaching staff. Working in the Philadelphia Eagles front office at the time, I called him to inquire if he would have an interest in driving to Philadelphia to meet with owner Jeffrey Lurie and head coach Ray Rhodes. Lurie wanted Rhodes to hire a young coach who could replace Jon Gruden as the offensive coordinator when Gruden eventually left to become a head coach. (Gruden had been flirting with the Oakland Raiders for the past two years.)
Payton and his pregnant wife, Beth, were in College Park, Md., expecting his moving trucks to show up at any moment when my call came. Still, nothing could deter him from immediately jumping in his car and driving to Philly for a chance to get in the NFL. Grabbing a cell phone to stay in constant touch with Beth, Payton made quick time. He went on to earn the job and launch his NFL career, with the upcoming season being his third as the Saints head coach.
What always impressed me about Payton was his determination and his ability to adapt. The working conditions in Philadelphia in 1997 were just horrible. Payton did not have an office. He worked out of his own briefcase, had no phone line and had to rely on a cell phone with very spotty service. To watch film, he moved from room to room, but he never complained. He never was in a bad mood. He just welcomed the new challenge with a smile.
Payton told me last week that every offseason he has some kind of team bonding session, usually paintball or bowling. This year he thought it would be the right thing to do to give back to the city of New Orleans. Payton held a team meeting and put his idea to a vote: either practice for an OTA day ... or help rebuild a neighborhood.
In a no-brainer unanimous vote, the Saints loaded their team buses to work with the Rebuilding Together New Orleans project. Rebuilding Together is a national nonprofit with a network of nearly 225 affiliates across the U.S. Their mission is to preserve affordable housing by bringing volunteers and communities together to rehabilitate the homes of low-income homeowners.
In the heat and humidity, the Saints worked on four homes in the Holly Grove neighborhood of New Orleans, which is still trying to recover from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. With the same intensity that goes into preparing his team, Payton and the Saints worked diligently, intent on rebuilding these homes and their owner's dreams.
"It's an awesome sight," said Payton, "The guys know how important these types of things are to our community. We are all in this together. This is our city. This is our home. We are just doing a small part, but it matters to the people that live here and it shows we care about them. It digs your roots in the town."
To further emphasize his commitment to the city, Payton and his staff invited high school players from inner city New Orleans for a one-day skill camp last weekend. The camp also allowed high school coaches to learn football from the Saints staff. For many of the kids, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The Saints are now a big part of restoring the city. Author Michael Lewis, who wrote the best-selling sports books "Moneyball" and "The Blind Side," has recently moved back to New Orleans to conduct research for an upcoming book that will center on the restoration of New Orleans. "It's slightly alarming how much better run the Saints are after the storm than they were in the 38 years before it," he says. "They aren't a symbol of the city getting back to what it was before the storm; they're a symbol of the city remaking itself entirely."
Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Jamaal Brown and many more rolled up their sleeves to paint, to clean and to build. Payton even gained further insight into his players' skill set that does not involve football. Kevin Dudley, his backup fullback, was so gifted with a hammer and electric saw that he took over the building project from the Restore manager. "It's amazing to learn new things about guys you're around all the time," Payton said.
This hard work will pay huge dividends for the Saints. I cannot help but think that when this year's games get a little tough, bonding sessions like this one will make the Saints dig a little deeper, fight a little harder.
• Colts president Bill Polian really likes his team's chances this year. "Where we are right now is as good or better than we've been since we've been here,'' Polian said. And as Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean once said, "It ain't bragging if you can do it." I think Polian is right, but the key will be to keep defensive end Dwight Freeney healthy.
• Denver's Brandon Marshall might be the hardest wide receiver in the NFL to tackle; the only thing keeping him from being a huge star is his off the field behavior. Marshall practiced last week for the first time, coming off an offseason forearm injury sustained while messing around at his home. The uncapped year is coming and Marshall may be the most coveted receiver in football by 2010, if he can behave properly off the field.
• I am very tired of hearing selfish Chad Johnson stories. What ever happened to winning? Johnson has been in one playoff game in his entire seven-year career, and his team lost that one. Can you win a little before you try to dominate the news?
Mike Brown, the owner of the Bengals, will not bend. I don't think that; I know that.
• Commissioner Roger Goodell did a very smart thing last week, forming a committee of general managers and appointing former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi to serve as co-chair along with Ray Anderson from the NFL office. This new committee will provide advice and other feedback to the Football Operations Department on key issues such as the expanded use of technology; player development and scouting opportunities; innovation initiatives affecting the Pro Bowl, combine, draft and preseason; and all matters concerning protection of the integrity of the game.
Minicamps? OTAs? This isn't real football, people. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin understands the true essence of the dog days of the NFL offseason, where headlines are made every time a player doesn't show up to practice. "It's different than playing the game of football," he said. "Don't read too deeply into evaluating this time of year. It's about teaching. This is football in shorts, and I keep that in mind as I look at what goes on out there. People that may do great things out there may disappear in pads. Guys who struggle out there in shorts may be great players in pads. I always keep that thought in mind. I reserve judgment until we go to training camp and put pads on."
Tomlin is Bill Walsh-like in his thought process. Walsh, who firmly believed we should teach the players the system, then develop the skills within the system, used the offseason for teaching his course of football.
By the way, I saw where Buffalo and Denver cancelled parts of their mandatory camps. So why do we make such a big deal when players miss an OTA?
• If I was starting an expansion team or if I was an owner possibly looking for a new coach, my first choice would be Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator of the Patriots. This season, watch the dynamics during the games on the sideline between McDaniels and New England head coach Bill Belichick. You can tell Belichick has the utmost confidence and respect in McDaniels. And that confidence and respect is not easily attained from Belichick.
• If I needed a running back, I would call the Giants and inquire about the availability of Derrick Ward. Ward's contract expires after the season and he becomes an unrestricted free agent. In 2007 he was second on the Giants with 602 rushing yards before a fractured fibula sent him to injured reserve. Ward has been tremendously productive in all phases -- returning kicks, catching the ball and displaying excellent run skills. He has been a little injury prone in his career, but he would help any team looking for a bona fide No. 1 back.
What is going on in Tampa Bay? Is anyone happy? Witness these three quotes from three Buccaneers quarterbacks and tell me this won't be the best training camp soap opera next month.
• "I do believe that he thought I might be faking it. I mean, he asked me, 'Is it in your head?' For him to say that, that's just not right. There are just a lot of things that I can never forgive him for."--Chris Simms on Jon Gruden questioning his injuries
• "Chris did what he felt he had to do. I think he had to do it. ... I think Jon's a great coach, I think he is. But this is a tough business. I've been on the other side. I understand exactly where Chris is coming from. Chris is going to be a heck of a player once he gets his opportunity. I love Chris like a brother. It's just a shame what he's gone through with the injury. He'll come back. He'll bounce back. He deserves the opportunity."--Brian Griese on Simms and Gruden
• "There might be a time when I might have to stand up. I hate to do that to jeopardize my teammates because they're out here and I don't want to let them down in any sort of way. But I think at some point, you just want to see the respect from up top given."--Jeff Garcia on his contract demands
I am very proud to be the son of a barber, and even prouder that my 82-year-old father still cuts hair every day. Happy Fathers Day.