AP Sports Writer
METAIRIE, La. (AP) -- As Saints players dumped belongings from their lockers into huge brown bags, right tackle Zach Strief said he wished he could look forward to a new season devoid of questions about the bounty scandal.
The seven-year veteran and offensive captain knows better than that.
He expects everything the Saints do when Sean Payton returns in 2013 to be compared to how the team struggled while its coach was suspended in 2012.
"I'm sure it'll come up again next year when it's not even an issue because now it's his first year back," Strief said. "So it'll probably take two years to really get away from it."
That doesn't mean it will take two years to return to the playoffs.
Although the Saints (7-9) never did quite recover from an 0-4 start, those first four losses all were by single digits, and they went 7-5 the rest of the way.
Given that Drew Brees passed for a whopping 5,177 yards and 43 touchdowns, and that both Marques Colston and Lance Moore surpassed the 1,000-yard mark receiving, the offense doesn't appear to need much work.
Even New Orleans' historically bad defense, which gave up the most yards (7,042) ever in a single season, demonstrated progress under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and registered the club's first shutout in 17 years earlier this month.
So while the Saints will take a hard look at what went wrong defensively this season, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who also coaches linebackers, doesn't expect a complete overhaul.
"Extreme makeover -- I don't know about that. I really don't, but that's why we're in the evaluation process now," Vitt said Monday. "We'll make sure that we're putting the right players in the right positions to make plays. We'll match the proper calls with personnel groupings and do a hard evaluation of ourselves, that's only fair."
The Saints dealt with unprecedented punishment and distractions in 2012. Not only was Payton suspended the entire season, but Vitt was suspended six games and general manager Mickey Loomis eight games. The Saints also lost second-round draft choices in 2012 and 2013. Even though player suspensions for linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive Will Smith never came to pass -- they were thrown out on appeal -- those players spent much of the season taking part in a legal effort to overturn their bounty sanctions.
While the Saints never used the bounty fallout as excuses during the season, they figured it took some sort of toll.
"I don't know how drastic of an effect it had ... but there was some effect there and there was a whole bunch of combination of things to equal the 7-9 record," linebacker Jonathan Casillas said.
The Saints' experienced team of assistants sought to take the same approach in terms of scheduling and routines that Payton had during the previous six seasons. They even had an expansive mural of a glaring Payton placed in the indoor practice facility to remind players of their banned coach's intensity, and that he was there with them in spirit.
Still, it was obvious that they missed Payton's ability to gauge the pulse of the team, motivate players and determine what needed to be fixed when things went wrong.
After winning more games than any team during the previous three seasons combined, the Saints had their first losing season since 2007 and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years.
"We certainly want coach back as soon as we can get him back," Strief said. "We've said all along he's an important part of this organization. He's the leader of this organization, so you don't want to lose that guy.
"I know that he's going to be revved up. He's got 12 months of aggression wound up for us so I'm sure he'll be ready to go."
The Saints will have a few key personnel issues to deal with when Payton returns, likely after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. Several regulars will be free agents, including left tackle Jermon Bushrod, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, receiver Devery Henderson and Casillas. The Saints appear ready to part with veteran linebacker Scott Shanle, a former starter who was a healthy scratch the past eight games.
Saints players said Monday they hoped most of them will remain, citing the bond created in the locker room among players who never quit on a season that seemed doomed from the start. First, New Orleans rallied from 0-4 to 5-5, then responded to a late-season three-game skid by winning two straight and helping to knock Dallas out of the playoffs.
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