PHOENIX (AP) — Sean Payton is trying to guard against anyone in the New Orleans Saints' organization thinking the team will return to its playoff form of recent seasons just because he's back.
"That's a dangerous mindset for a team to have. That's not real," Payton said when NFL coaches met with reporters Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings. "We could turn around and win five games."
Payton returned to work a little over two months ago following a full-season suspension — which lasted about nine months — in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation of the Saints.
Since then, he's made several substantial changes, most notably firing defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and hiring Rob Ryan to not only replace him, but to overhaul the defensive scheme from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4.
Payton also has hired several new assistants and taken part in key personnel decisions, including ones that brought in cornerback Keenan Lewis in free agency while allowing four-year starting left tackle Jermon Bushrod to leave for Chicago.
Payton said he is well-rested and "fired up" to be back on the job, but also cautioned that the Saints have "a lot of areas we have to improve on."
"The one thing we have to avoid is perception that they'll be right back in the swing of things," Payton said. "The way we played a year ago and some of the things we have to correct, we've got a lot of work ahead of us. ... We did a lot of things that prevented you from winning games."
Payton said Spagnuolo wound up in a situation that was "unfair," because he was hired only a couple months before Payton was suspended, and the two never coached together. Still, Payton emphasized that he was concerned by the Saints not only ranking last in the NFL in defense, but giving up more yards (7,042) than any team in history.
He also was bothered by New Orleans ranking 25th in rushing, averaging 98.6 yards per game.
Payton pinpointed those two statistical trends as reasons why Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees appeared to struggle at times, completing what for him was a relatively low 63 percent of his passes while throwing 19 interceptions and getting sacked 26 times.
"When you tell me a team is last in the league in defense and last in the running game, I'm telling you the quarterback's job description is entirely different," Payton asserted. "I'm telling you he's having to play and press and try to do certain things that his counterpart may not have to do based on the way that team is running the ball or playing defense. ... You get one dimensional, you find yourself in these games where you're not controlling the game."
Now Payton is trying to find a new left tackle and bolster a pass rush that ranked 29th in sacks per passing attempt.
"If you ask me what keeps me up at night," Payton began, "there would be two areas: how are we going to improve our pass rush and how are we going to be at left tackle?"
Charles Brown, a 2010 second-round draft choice, could be the answer at left tackle, but Payton is concerned about his history of being injury prone.
"He has to be available," Payton said. "Year after year, if you're unable to (remain healthy enough to play), then it becomes as a coach, 'Do we have him? Do we not have him? ... It's hard to game plan then.
"I look at that spot like there's a magnet with no name on it."
Payton said it was painful to watch from afar in frustration as his team struggled, and to be barred from even talking to people about it. And even as Payton said he tried to make the best of his suspension by coaching his son's sixth-grade football team and even going to the dentist more often, he also made it clear that he will never agree that his punishment was justified.
When asked if he subscribes to the notion that everything happens for a reason, he responded, "I don't know that I would say everything happens for a reason; I would say everything happens."
He went on to say that his approach to his suspension was to focus on what it would take to get reinstated, rather than allowing his behavior to be governed by his bitterness over the fact that, for nearly a year, he could not have conversations with colleagues to which he was closest.
"I could scream from the rooftops how screwed up I think that is, but that's not going to matter, all right?" Payton said. "So there's a discipline and a focus and you just make sure you get yourself in a place where you're able to handle the challenge and you're able to come back stronger, tougher, wiser, maybe more skeptical than ever."