METAIRIE, La. (AP) — From his bright orange shorts to the smile with which he greeted reporters, Sean Payton looked about as cheerful as a man in a high-pressure job can be on a Monday.
It helps when you win on Sunday, which is exactly what the Saints did in what also marked their head coach's first meaningful game since his one-season bounty ban ended last winter.
Payton downplays his role in whatever success the Saints may have this season, but his players tell a different story.
"It's less about him being on the sideline for the game and more about him being here for an entire offseason and a preseason," right tackle Zach Strief said, adding that Payton's approach this year has resembled what he did when he first arrived in 2006.
That year, Payton took over a team that had gone 3-13 a year earlier. He wanted to see a significant culture change. One way he did that, Strief said, was by giving players the sense that just about all of their jobs were up for grabs, creating more competition. He also pushed players physically and mentally, sometimes by making them run more sprints than usual when they seemed to be allowing the grind of camp to render them more sluggish.
"When you as a player get deep into camp, you get this feeling of: 'It's too much, it's too hard, we went too many days in a row.' And as soon as you felt that way in camp this year, he pushed — harder," Strief said. "It's not even for conditioning, but what it does mentally is says: As soon as your mind thinks there's no way, you train your mind that, yes, there is a way and yes I can do it."
Several players also commented on Payton's intense sideline demeanor on Sunday, particularly those like new tight end Ben Watson, who hadn't really seen Payton's piercing game-day glare, his highly animated body language or the commanding way he barks orders.
"He's like a player. He goes into his different zone. I was warned about his zone that he goes into, so I was prepared," Watson said. "He's intense, very intense, very focused."
As far as conditioning goes, Payton is walking the walk. The gray workout shirt he wore Monday hugged the contours of his torso, chiseled from the CrossFit workout routine he adopted in the past year. That routine also inspired some of the competitive conditioning games he set up between groups of players during the offseason — and it is hard to find a player in the locker room who doesn't say he didn't end up working harder to get in shape this year than last.
Payton's emphasis on physical and mental toughness resonated with players who were part of the 2012 Saints. That team lost five games by eight or fewer points in what wound up a disappointing 7-9 season.
Sure enough, the Saints found themselves in a tight game with Atlanta on Sunday which tested their resilience in the fourth quarter. They narrowly escaped with 23-17 victory, thanks in large part to a defense which held firm deep in its own territory in the final minute.
Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks saw more action in that game than he anticipated because of an injury to fellow lineman Tyrunn Walker, but said he was prepared for it because of Payton's approach to the offseason.
"Not only can you feel your body in better shape and more conditioned, but mentally you know you've been through more strain than that," Hicks said. "So you're saying to yourself, 'I've been to this plateau and I can exceed that.'"
Added cornerback Jabari Greer: "Ultimately, coach Payton is the leader of our team. ... Having him back — his leadership and his practice habits — it definitely prepared us for finishing in the fourth quarter."
The indoor practice field where Payton met reporters was warmer than usual, and Payton seemed to be joking when he said with a smile that it was because his team needed to become acclimatized to late summer conditions in Tampa Bay, where the Saints will play this Sunday.
Several minutes later, however, he delivered a comment in a more declarative tone that left some doubt about whether he really was kidding.
"We will get a good test here this week, going on the road in a place that, at this time of the year, can be pretty hot."