Payton’s history is not a sore subject — for now
There’s a line on the résumé of Saints coach Sean Payton that hasn’t warranted much attention during his winding career through the college and professional ranks.
Most of his players probably don’t know about it. Those who do probably haven’t cared about it.
But depending on how long the NFL’s first work stoppage in 24 years lasts, that could change.
Payton’s first foray into the NFL came in 1987 as a replacement player during the 24-day player strike as the backup quarterback for coach Mike Ditka’s Chicago “Spare’’ Bears, as they were referred to.
With such a long stretch of labor peace, not many in the NFL noticed how Payton got his first break. But with a lockout heading into its third week, Payton has been asked about it more and more.
“It was my first year out of college and I had just been cut from the CFL,’’ Payton said. “It was an easy decision. It was an opportunity. I wanted to play and possibly get evaluated.’’
After a record-setting career at Eastern Illinois, Payton went from the Chicago Bruisers of the Arena Football League to a six-week stint with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League to being the backup to Mike Hohensee on the Bears. In three NFL games, Payton completed 8 of 23 passes for 79 yards, with one interception, for a passer rating of 27.3. He was also sacked seven times.
For that, he comes right before Walter Payton in the team media guide’s listing of all players in franchise history.
“When I saw Ditka at the Super Bowl, I thanked him for getting me on with my life’s work because I wasn’t good at [playing],’’ Payton said. “It was probably one of the last stops. My memory was that we opened up and beat Philadelphia and Minnesota and lost the last game to the Saints, but I didn’t view it as a significant [thing].’’
Payton said he didn’t catch much grief from striking players at the time.
“No, we didn’t,’’ he said. “It was easy. It was not a big deal. It may have been for some people, but it wasn’t going to affect what we were doing.’’
Most of his current players weren’t aware that Payton was a replacement player until it was brought up last week at the owners’ meetings in New Orleans. Even so, it doesn’t seem to be an issue at this time.
“I heard all the remarks once the lockout started,’’ said free agent Heath Evans, the former Patriots and Saints fullback. “What that means to me? I have no idea. He never talked about it, but honestly, to me, it doesn’t matter.
“No one loves this game more than me, and if I wasn’t good enough to be here, I probably would have been a replacement player back in the day if I would have had the chance to get on an NFL field. As an athlete, you always think you just need that one more shot.’’
That Payton was on the outside of the league looking for a job — and not one of the hundreds of NFL players who crossed the picket line, such as Joe Montana, Howie Long, Randy White, and Steve Largent — likely will keep away some of the controversy.
But if the lockout drags on and games (i.e. paychecks) become endangered, Payton’s role could come under scrutiny. Even one in his current profession, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, was involved in one of the 1987 strike’s most violent moments.
Del Rio, then a picketing Chiefs linebacker, got into a fight with Hall of Famer Otis Taylor, who as a scout for the team was trying to escort potential replacement players to tryouts.
“There will probably be more than a few players that will look at that a little bit more closely if we start losing games,’’ Evans said. “Our biggest battle will be solidarity.
“Even though we don’t all agree, we all need to be in that final thought process that we’re doing the right thing. We’ve got to battle these owners back and not just for us, but future players and out of respect for the players that had to strike to get the benefits that we now have.’’
While there was some chatter about the use of replacement players — and only in response to media queries — no one thinks the NFL will make that mistake again. It was a disaster the first time.
Commissioner Roger Goodell left little doubt that bringing in replacement players isn’t something the league has any interest in, although at least one of his lawyers feels it would be legal to do so.
“We have not had any discussions or consideration of replacement players,’’ Goodell said. “That hasn’t been discussed. It hasn’t been considered. It’s not in our plans.’’
Obviously the NFL doesn’t want to open those scabs. But that won’t keep emotions from spilling over if this work stoppage is as long and hard-fought as the last.
If that’s the case, Payton could have some issues to deal with in his locker room because, no matter the circumstances, he was on the other side in ’87. Just as he is now.
Days after former Bears safety Dave Duerson committed suicide in February, deadspin.com published an interview it conducted with Duerson in November. Among the topics was Duerson’s allegation that the elder Ryan used a racial slur toward him when Ryan was the Bears defensive coordinator.
“He said, ‘Well, you won’t be here too long, because I don’t like smart [expletives],’ ’’ Duerson said, according to Deadspin. “I worked for Buddy for three years, and there was not a day that he did not remind me that I was not his draft pick, that he did not want me there or something to that effect.
“The guy simply hated my guts, without question.’’
Buddy Ryan denied the allegation, as did his son.
“I never heard him say a word like that,’’ Rex Ryan said. “My dad loves his players, respected his players. There’s no way in hell that happened.
“Look at our history as a family. My dad was one of the first guys with an African-American as a quarterback. My twin brother [Rob Ryan] was, like, the first white coach at a historically black university, five years at Tennessee State.
“It’s crazy. My brother and I both worked for African-American coaches in college football. There isn’t a prejudiced bone in our body or my dad’s body. That’s why I know it’s crazy and ridiculous.’’
Rex Ryan said this won’t affect how others view his father’s career.
“There’s no way in hell it’s a stain on his career,’’ he said. “My dad is a great person. Maybe there’s a different agenda there.
“You can say a lot of things about my dad and me, but that’s the most ridiculous comment I’ve ever heard.’’
The subject of his father became a little lighter when Ryan was asked if he ever thought there would be a day that a Ryan would join the Cowboys, the hated rival of the Bears and Eagles, whom Buddy later coached. Rob Ryan was recently named the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator.
“My dad is struggling with it a little bit,’’ Rex Ryan said. “The Jets made sense [because Buddy was a Jets assistant], but he looked at Rob like he was Benedict Arnold or something.
“But by the time the season rolls around, the Ryan family’s going to be cheering for Dallas — even Buddy.’’
“In the old days of football, I was told you never laid down on the football field,’’ said Smith. “If you can walk off, don’t let the opponent see that you’re injured.
“So when you’re a legitimate tough guy, you know what you do? When you’re hurt, you find a way to walk off, not letting anyone see that you’re hurt.
“I think people are searching. Shame on those people who led that charge, is what I would say. Whoever they are, shame on them. But we have to move on from that. We don’t have any issues with any of that stuff.’’
Smith has heard rumblings of various conspiracy theories about what happened in the Bears’ 21-14 loss to the Packers. One includes the Bears making up the injury, that it really wasn’t that bad since Cutler didn’t need surgery.
“That’s an insult, almost to the point where I’m tired of talking about it,’’ Smith said. “There’s nothing to the story. For people to search for stuff like that, shame on them who is even trying to do that.
“There’s nothing to any of that. There’s really not.’’
A Grade II injury is defined as 50 to 60 percent of the ligament being torn and elongated.
Smith said he’s not worried about this haunting Cutler in Chicago, but time will tell.
“I don’t think any player should have to go through that, because it wasn’t warranted, at all,’’ Smith said. “He was injured, he couldn’t play. It’s an insult for us to answer the questions on whether he’s tough.
“As far as Jay coming back, Jay’s fine. I have talked to him. Not, of course, lately, but since the season. He’s fine, and he can’t wait to come back and finish the job this year.’’
A Jet stream of comments With Bill Belichick missing the coach availability session in New Orleans because of what he said was a faulty alarm clock — wonder how that excuse would go over if used by one of his players for a voluntary activity — it left more time for reporters to speak to Jets coach Rex Ryan. He was asked why Tom Brady lasted so long in the draft: “We all saw him run that 40 [in 5.23 seconds]. Everybody was like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s the slowest 40 I’ve ever seen in my life!’ ’’ Asked whether the Jets spent too much emotion against the Patriots before falling to the Steelers in the AFC Championship game, he said, “Did we put everything we had into playing New England? Absolutely. Every single thing we had. And that’s what it took to beat New England. They were going to roll to the Super Bowl if they beat us, and everybody knew it.’’ But Ryan wouldn’t say the Jets have caught up to the Patriots. “I can’t say we’ve caught them, because they’ve won our division two straight years,’’ he said. “But we know we can beat them. We’re 3-2 against them since I’ve been here. That was what everybody forgot — we beat them in Week 2. We got crushed in the Monday Night Massacre. Belichick outcoached me. But we beat them pretty good in Week 2. We respected them, but we didn’t fear them. We knew that we were going to play a zillion times better than we did that Monday night. I know they’re going to circle those games [next season], and so will we.’’
Corner is very sharp New Titans coach Mike Munchak, whose team picks eighth in the draft, is high on LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. Most scouts believe he’s the surest thing in the draft, and Munchak thinks a cornerback can now stake a claim to being taken first overall. “You saw what happened with the Jets and the guys they have and how important it is to have a guy [Darrelle Revis] who can take the best receiver and shut that guy down,’’ Munchak said. “Peterson is definitely a special guy. We interviewed him for 15 minutes at the combine. This guy seems special, listening to him talk about his trade and his mind-set and how he plays different coverages. He’s going to be a special player. He’s one of those rare corners who can come in and be a very, very high pick.’’
Short yardage Buffalo coach Chan Gailey became a believer in Texas A&M linebacker Von Miller while coaching him at the Senior Bowl. “I had first impressions and last impressions,’’ Gailey said. “The first impression was, I heard so much about this guy, he’s not nearly as big [6 feet 3 inches, 237 pounds] as I thought he was going to be. And the last impression when I walked out of there was, I see why I’ve heard so much about this guy. He understands leverage, he understands blow delivery, he’s got amazing speed and quickness. He’s an interesting guy.’’ . . . Gailey on defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, who was signed by the Patriots after being released by the Bills: “Marcus is a big man that plays hard. A great human being. He really is. We were just in a situation with some younger players that we wanted to start getting them on the field. He’s not on his last leg. It’s not one of those. Would they have signed him if he was on his last leg? No. It’s just we have some good young players and we’re excited to see them play.’’ . . . Chiefs coach Todd Haley on former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel (left), a free agent: “You couldn’t ask for a better veteran player to be around, especially as a new, younger head coach, just from the standpoint of a guy that paid attention all the time. As a coach, you learn pretty quickly the players you can believe and the players you can’t believe, especially within games. Mike was generally real good there.’’ . . . The Buccaneers have been mentioned as a possible candidate to be featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,’’ if there are training camps. “There’s a bunch of positives and some negatives,’’ said coach Raheem Morris. “It’s something out there in the air, and it’s part of our league. Anytime you’re asked to be on ‘Hard Knocks,’ that means there’s interest in your team. We’ll have to see.’’
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.