PALM BEACH — Shortly before arriving at the NFL owners meetings on Tuesday morning, a dose of reality suddenly washed over embattled Saints coach Sean Payton, who faces a season-long suspension that begins Sunday.
"I think the biggest challenge is, driving in here this morning, this would probably be (in) 39 years — as a Pop Warner player, as a high school player, as a college player, and then college coach, professional coach — this potentially is the first time in 39 years where you're not directly involved in football for a season," he said.
Fulfilling one of his final official duties as the team's coach in 2012, Payton surfaced in Palm Beach where, a day earlier, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had again admonished Payton, Saints team officials and players for their roles in the bounty scandal that has rocked America's most popular game.
After an investigation found that players and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams offered financial enticements for brutal hits that, in some cases, injured opponents, Goodell levied severe penalties that include the suspension of Payton, which will cost him a reported $7.5 million in salary.
Payton had already apologized in a statement, but his comments Tuesday were his first since the news broke last week. Though he clearly is struggling to come to grips with the penalty, Payton dismissed the notion that he wouldn't return, saying he was "100 percent certain" he would be on the sideline in 2013.
"I look forward to winning," he said, "and we'll do that."
Payton can appeal the ruling, but said he hasn't decided "if there would be a benefit." He refused to quibble with the commissioner's decision, probably because Goodell also would rule on the potential appeal.
"I think the commissioner has done a great job communicating with us throughout this process," Payton said. "I think being in a leadership role myself as a head coach, I certainly understand the position he's in. I think he's made it clear, and for good reason, we've got such a good product right now that just the idea of something with this magnitude is an important issue he wanted to address."
Payton confirmed reports that the team in interested in having his confidant, longtime NFL coach Bill Parcells, coach the Saints this fall. New Orleans, which plays the Bucs twice per year in the NFC South, also is considering in-house candidates and planned to meet with Parcells later on Tuesday.
Payton, often brash and surly, was contrite and conciliatory. He made no attempt to shift the blame, saying he should have been more in tune with what was happening on his defense. Payton runs the offense and spends most of his time with that personnel.
"As the head coach, anything that happens in the framework of your team and your program, you're responsible for," he said. "And that's a lesson I've learned. And it's one that it's easy to get carried away (with) in regards to a certain side of the ball or (being) more involved offensively or defensively. And that's something that I regret."
As for what Payton knew and when, he said, "The first awareness, specifically, was after the '09-'10 season. That's when the league came in initially and (interviewed) a few people."
Goodell accused players and team officials of lying during that investigation.
To that, Payton said, "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."
In two years, Payton has gone from winning Super Bowl XLIV to the lowest point of his career.
"You go through a range of emotions that kind of hit you," he said. "You're disappointed. You're disappointed in yourself that it got to this point."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377.