29 August 2013

Stoking The Fire

"Part of me is more cynical now."

courtesy of nola.com
That was Sean Payton's response (in part), during a sideline interview before the Saints-Texans' preseason game on Sunday, when asked how he had changed as a person over the past year.

Consider the circumstances.

Just prior to kickoff of a nationally-televised game on a Sunday afternoon, when a large audience was watching, Payton shed his oft-rehearsed reticence, set aside the coachspeak and the otherwise carefully-crafted "message," and displayed noteworthy candor. His answer wasn't a bland script from the Saints' media relations department. No. This was an emotional response, however ephemeral, that defied containment.

Payton's newfound cynicism, or his revelation thereof, is a reflection of a discontent with the events of 2012 and an indirect refutation of the NFL's Bountygate claims.

Added to that, days earlier on Fox Football Daily, Payton expressed a similar sentiment. He talked openly about Bountygate and revealed that he didn't learn of the allegations until the days immediately preceding their public disclosure. He said, in so many words, that he was blindsided.

Payton said this with a matter-of-factness that attempted, but was unable, to mask his still-lingering disbelief, an assertion that again delegitimized the NFL's stated intentions in that whole sordid mess. It was an ugly reminder of events past, and Payton spoke in a way that diverged from the NFL's preferred, benign company line when discussing issues controversial or unfavorable. No more meek regurgitations.

Saying he's now more "cynical" is just another way of saying he got a raw deal.

This stance from Payton isn't random or accidental.

Aside from his simply reacting to being railroaded and scarlet-lettered, Payton, perhaps, more specifically intended to illustrate publicly that he hasn't rolled over, that he hasn't lost his nerve, that he hasn't been neutered by Goodell, and that when the moment necessitates, he's capable of acting not out of fear, but instead out of fearlessness, intact with that familiar intrepid streak encapsulated by Ambush, the ballsiest of decisions in the most precarious of situations, with the biggest of prizes on the line.

It's that disregard for the downside of risk that (partly) separates Sean Payton from the Mike Smiths of the league, and if Payton is still capable of periodically operating with that fearlessness, then he can more effectively build a supreme confidence among the players he leads.

For Payton to reveal that fearlessness outwardly is crucial, because simply telling his players privately is not enough. Breeding an ultimate confidence may elevate his players during the pressures of the big moments that lie in wait.

Only Payton can fully foster that fortitude, and his deliberate, candid stance reflects where this "new" Sean Payton is heading this season. It's "follow the leader," something that was sorely missing in 2012.

Where Payton has in the past been aloof with the media, where he has been previously reluctant to divulge too much substance, he's now making it a point to obliquely express (what should rightfully be perceived as) his displeasure with Bountygate. These slivers of openness are telling. I'm sure Joe Vitt is proud.

The reveal here is a window into Payton's mindset, and it blunts his corporate-ish, PR-driven contention that the Saints aren't using 2012 as a cheap motivational ploy this season. Payton might not want 2012 to be a crutch, but he can certainly use it as a ladder in some capacity. And he might well be doing so already ...

... Anyway, circumstances aren't all that foreign after the experiences of 2006 and the omnipresence of Katrina. Then, whether Payton chose so or not, the ghosts of Katrina were always there, hovering at a distance, threatening as an easy excuse for failure, but also often propelling the team onward. Only with the proper balance of eliminating Katrina as a rationalization for failure, yet embracing it as an opportunity for growth, did Payton fully channel the power of circumstance to his team's maximum benefit.

Like with many single entities in life, harnessing the beneficial and minimizing the destructive can make all the difference. Fire can heat your house without burning it down.

Though it's certain the fallout from Bountygate won't translate into mindless sloganeering like "Do Your Job" or "Finish Strong," it would be the essence of naiveté to think Payton and the Saints are not using the grand theft of 2012 to their collective advantage.

Something, after all, induced the surely-beneficial 100% player participation in the team's offseason programs.

"Never Forget," or what-have-you, might not be the central message, but there's an elemental aspect to it that's undeniably present. They might not say it publicly. They might not even say it to each other. But they're sure as shit thinking it.

Aren't you?

Let there be no doubt about it, there's a little more at stake, a little more to prove, this year. It's inescapable. And so maybe Payton is strategically employing the past discord, injecting it sporadically for the purposes of keeping his team at a heightened state of motivation without distracting their focus.

"Moving on" isn't as simple as we like to think it is, at least not until suitable closure arrives to facilitate the transition.

There's a chapter that's yet to be authored.

If we're lucky, that will deliver all the closure we'll ever need.

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