NEW ORLEANS // Finally, Sean Payton gets to do what he loves the most.
Nearly 19 months after he coached his last game, Payton was back on the sidelines when the New Orleans Saints played the Kansas City Chiefs in an exhibition opener Friday night at the Superdome.
It would not come close to matching the intensity of his previous game, a pulsating, excruciating 36-32 loss at San Francisco in the divisional round of the 2011 play-offs.
But the Superdome was sure to 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 San Francisco's Candlestick Park on January, 2012, ruing a heartbreaking end to the Saints' season. In a game with four lead changes in the last four minutes, the 49ers won on a 14-yard touchdown reception with nine 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.
Soon after, the bounty scandal broke, with evidence that one of Payton's assistants had paid bonuses to defensive players who knocked opponents out of games.
Payton was suspended for all of the 2012 season, and the Saints slipped to 7-9 without him, losing their first four games en route to their first losing 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.
Steve Spagnuolo, the defensive coordinator 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, the quarterback 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's 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 said it would not be a normal pre-season atmosphere on game day.
"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 pre-season, offseason, Super Bowl, regular season. They're going to be out in full force, and it's going to be loud."
Payton's previous game in the Superdome was a 45-28 victory against Detroit on January 7, 2012, in the NFC wild-card round. He will call plays for the first time since November 6, 2011, when he suffered a broken leg and wrecked knee in a sideline collision during a game at Tampa Bay. He gave up the playcalling to the offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael for the rest of 2011, but has reclaimed that duty.
Payton played down his emotions ahead of the game, but his players anticipated a raucous atmosphere.
The 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."