METAIRIE, La. (AP) - Finally, Saints coach Sean Payton gets to do what he loves the most. Nearly 19 months after he coached his last game, Payton will be back on the sideline when New Orleans plays the Kansas City Chiefs in an exhibition opener Friday night at the Superdome.
It won't come close to matching the intensity of his last game, a pulsating, excruciating 36-32 loss at San Francisco in the divisional round of the 2011 playoffs. But the dome should be rocking for his return from an unprecedented year-long suspension for his role in the bounty scandal.
"Just getting back to being out on the field in practice and having a chance to coach in a regular game, that part of it is exciting," Payton said. "The fans have been great. They get excited about our team, especially at the start of the season after everything that went on a year ago. I know our players are excited to play."
Much has changed since Payton walked off the field at Candlestick Park on Jan. 14, 2012, ruing a heartbreaking end to the Saints' season.
In a game with four lead changes in the last 4:02, the 49ers won on a 14-yard touchdown reception with 9 seconds left. New Orleans, which was 9-0 at home, would have played host to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game the following week.
Without Payton, the Saints slipped to 7-9 last year, losing their first four games en route to their first sub-.500 season since 2007. After setting an NFL record for most yards gained in 2011, New Orleans shattered the mark for most yards allowed in 2012. Then-defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, hired by Payton before his suspension, was fired and replaced by Rob Ryan.
The Saints have changed to a 3-4 alignment from a 4-3. Drew Brees, who threw for an NFL-record 5,476 yards in 2011, tied the NFL high with 19 interceptions in 2012. Chiefs quarterback Chase Daniel, slated to play the second quarter after spending the last three years with the Saints as Brees' backup, had an inside view of the New Orleans locker room without Payton.
"It was one of the toughest years professionally in my short career that I've been through," Daniel said. "It's hard when you lose your rock and your head coach like Sean Payton is down there. I think Drew put a little extra pressure on himself to fill the player and the head coach void. "
Daniel knows it will not be the normal preseason atmosphere at the dome. "Well, I talked to the ticket guy a couple days ago, and it's sold out," he said. "It's Sean Payton's first game really in like two years. The New Orleans fans love their football and it doesn't matter if it's preseason, offseason, Super Bowl, regular season. They're going to be out in full force, and it's going to be loud."
Payton's last game in the Superdome was a 45-28 win against Detroit on Jan. 7, 2012 in the NFC wild-card round. He will call plays for the first time since Nov. 6, 2011, when he tore his left MCL and broke his leg in a sideline collision during a game at Tampa Bay.
He gave up the play calling to offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael for the rest of 2011, but has reclaimed that duty. Payton played down his emotions a bit Thursday, but his players anticipate a raucous atmosphere.
"It's going to be live," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "It's loud every time we go into the dome, and with Sean's return and just the anticipation that seems to be buzzing around this season, everyone is going to be very excited."