During his yearlong absence from the New Orleans Saints sideline, Sean Payton was busy strategizing around pee-wee defenses and teaching single wing concepts to six-year old Pop Warner athletes. Showing the true mark of a champion, Payton applied his coaching ingenuity to leading the six-year-old Liberty Christian Warriors to the league championship. The Saints loss became the Warriors gain.

From the moment, he arrived in New Orleans, Payton was destined to become New Orleans’ white knight.  Payton’s tireless work ethic was groomed in the cavernous basements of stadiums and practice facilities or in the darkness of film rooms.

Most human thinkers are right brained or left-brained. Payton’s brain is geared towards offensive thinking. Before stamping his genius card in New Orleans as a Super Bowl champion, Payton earned his credentials as the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator before scooting down to post-Katrina New Orleans. In the seven years since, he’s easily become the most successful coach in their previously moribund franchise’s history.

Payton’s absence from the Saints sideline was the ultimate litmus test for the value of coaching. If your perception of Payton before was that his chief role was to roll the balls out at practice and let Drew Brees do work, 2012 re-contextualized his importance to the Saints success. The Payton-less Saints looked almost as hopeless as the 2011 Peyton-less Colts. It turns out that without Payton rocking a headset, the Saints were a disheveled bunch. The losses followed and the “Aints” made a temporary resurgence.

While the Saints were floundering during Payton’s suspension, his agent was needling Tom Benson and Mickey Loomis up every Sunday about negotiating a raise with Payton. In early January, the Saints relented to pressure placed on them by inking Payton to a five-year contract extension that would establish him as the highest paid coach in the NFL.

Offense is his niche and unlike most head coaches, he handles the bulk of playcalling himself. He’s not flawless. If Payton commits a lot more to the run, and deflects some of the pressure away from the passing attack, that will help the Saints defense. In the past that hasn’t been the case, and it remains to be seen if Payton will actually call more run plays.

Half the equation in determining Payton’s genius will be whether the Payton-less Liberty Christian Warriors regress this upcoming season. The Saints picked up a newfound respect for Payton during his Bounty-Gate suspension. With their offensive engineer back at the controls, the Saints will re-emerge as a force in the NFC South.