NEW ORLEANS – Sean Payton is mad. And this makes the Saints dangerous.
Whether they are 10-6-with-a-playoff-win dangerous or Super Bowl dangerous is TBD, dependent on variables not yet in evidence -- such as, how far away from a hot mess this Saints defense travels in a year, and Drew Brees' ability to be Drew Brees-ish yet again.
New Orleans definitely is dangerous, though, in the way teams, players and coaches with burning bile in their guts from setbacks, disappointments and failures usually are. Smart and talented with a little anger rarely fails.
I knew Sean Payton was two of the three long before I arrived in New Orleans for our sit-down interview. I had covered the Cowboys while he was their offensive coordinator, a hungry and willing pushback against Bill Parcells' aversion to any kind of risk. What happened from here is well chronicled. Go to New Orleans. Help save football there post-Katrina. Win Super Bowl. Become hero. Be implicated in Bountygate. Go away for a year. Become villain.
What I wanted to know is how angry Payton was, and if that was driving him at all. I know you are two of the three, I said.
"Smart and talented."
"Then I am all three."
This felt like truth. I mean, of course he is mad. Who would not be mad? This is not to be confused with him thinking he did nothing wrong. He fully accepts his share of blame, and not in the cheap way we have become accustomed where some version of "It's all my fault" is blanketed upon every criticism to stop any further talk.
He was the coach. It is on him, even the things that were not. He disappointed himself, and there are few worse things.
The thing that seems to linger is how his mistakes led to him being pilloried with neither defense nor context. It is prevalent in society at the moment, taking a mistake or failure or outright disastrous screwup and extrapolating it out to mean 457 things that are neither applicable nor fair.
To apologize is to say "I agree with what I have been called and with what I have been accused" -- namely, in Payton's case, of being a guy who tacitly greenlighted the targeting of the brains and the ACLs and the livelihoods of opposing players. This most certainly is not the case.
To say nothing, though, is to fail to acknowledge that, in the light of day, what happened on Payton's team failed to measure up to his own standards.
Payton had excuses, valid excuses. He trusted Gregg Williams when he probably should not have. When I gave him this out, though, Payton said he'd probably talk to Williams if he saw him and immediately went back to talking about his own culpability in this episode.
This is taking responsibility, being confronted with your very worst work day, owning your mistakes, learning from them and then actually doing better going forward.
Does this make Payton a villain? Or is he a redeemable hero?
The question is rigged since we all have a little of both, of good and bad, righteous and hypocritical, good decisions and bad, days that make us proud and days that do not.
Which leads to the question: How do we step back from mistakes made unintentionally, and without malice? How long must a person stay down before we let them off the mat? Or, in the case of Sean Payton, when do we stop?
The dogpile culture in which we live, and frankly I have contributed to, is as disingenuous as we get as a society. We all want grace for ourselves but are unwilling to grant it to others. Or more to the point, we want our own foibles to have a shelf life while endlessly picking at and debating the mistakes of others.
This is what Payton watched for a year, and not simply about himself but players and coworkers he loves and cares about. So, of course, he is a little angry and this makes him and the Saints dangerous.
Do not be surprised if it is the Super Bowl kind of dangerous, and if the worst thing that ever happened to him becomes the seed for the very best.