METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Sean Payton took a seat in front of a microphone and paused while a swarm of photographers converged, the sound of the shutters fluttering for several seconds.
“Are we done?” he asked with an impatient stare, largely silencing the cameras.
On the eve of his first training camp in two years, the New Orleans Saints’ coach was ready to talk football.
And after an unwanted year away because of his bounty suspension, Payton also appears ready to get back to a particular aspect of coaching in which he made his name: calling offensive plays.
Payton relinquished play-calling duties when he broke his leg in the sixth game of the 2011 season. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael assumed that role for the rest of 2011 and all of 2012.
Payton said Carmichael was “outstanding” as a play-caller. Indeed, with Carmichael calling plays for the last 10-plus games of 2011, Drew Brees and the offense set NFL records, including yards passing for a quarterback at 5,476 and total net yards at 7,474.
Even last season, when the Saints languished to a 7-9 season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the offense was second in the NFL in yards per game at nearly 411.
But in his year away from coaching, Payton had a chance to reflect on some of the things he missed most, and play-calling was one of them.
“It’s something I enjoy doing,” Payton said. “It’s just a matter of getting back up to speed and getting familiar with all the elements of it.”
Brees has had a tight relationship with Carmichael ever since the two were together in San Diego. They’ve been together a decade now and Brees said he would have complete faith in Carmichael or Payton as play-callers.
Still, Brees appreciated the significance of Payton’s decision to take a more hands-on approach in a number of areas after watching from afar as the club struggled in his absence.
“I thought Pete Carmichael did a phenomenal job,” Brees said, but added, “I love the fact that Sean is back and he’s taking the reins and he’s going to be the voice in my ear.”
For general manager Mickey Loomis, seeing Payton and Brees working closely again “just feels normal, and it feels good.”
“It’s probably a little fresher excitement than it would be ordinarily because of what happened a year ago,” Loomis added. “We are all a little bit more focused than we would have been otherwise.”
Brees said Payton also was more creative in his approach to the conditioning test players took on reporting day. He said it resembled more of the CrossFit routine the 49-year-old Payton himself began during his time away, resulting in a coach that looks his most svelte since arriving in the Big Easy in 2006.
Brees said that while the conditioning test previously consisted mostly of wind sprints, this year it was a combination of running, weight training and body-weight exercises such as pushups, which left players feeling as if they’d been through “a 10-minute wrestling match.”
“It was challenging for all,” Brees said. “It becomes very evident as to who was doing a great job staying in shape.”
Brees is heading into his 13th NFL season, having been through his last seven seasons in New Orleans without a major injury. How healthy he stays this year could depend on how good the Saints’ new left tackle is.
Payton made it sound like he is not yet settled on a starter to replace Jermon Bushrod, a four-year starter who left in free agency for Chicago. The front-runner appears to be 2010 second-round draft choice Charles Brown, with free-agent pickup Jason Smith and third-round draft choice Terron Armstead also in the mix.
“Each player has certain strengths,” Payton said, adding that he will need to see how each handles more full-contact practices and preseason games. “I’m anxious to see how those guys play.”
Brees said he felt Brown performed well when filling in last season for Zach Strief at right tackle, but Payton has expressed concerns about Brown’s recurring injuries.
“Hopefully his health can be something that doesn’t affect how he plays,” Payton said. “This is a big season for him and an important training camp, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he responds.”
Meanwhile, Payton said he expects five players to open camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, though all except outside linebacker Victor Butler, who tore knee ligaments during offseason training, have injuries which could heal before the regular season.
The other four are safety Roman Harper (sports hernia), cornerback Patrick Robinson (knee), receiver Marques Colston (foot) and receiver Kenny Stills (wrist). Payton said Robinson will be evaluated on a weekly basis, while Harper, Stills and Colston will be monitored day-by-day.
Players who remain on the PUP list at the start of the regular season must sit out six weeks before playing.