Sean Payton’s record suggests Saints won’t have significant drop-off
METAIRIE – The New Orleans Saints have been a different football organization since Sean Payton arrived.
They played 39 seasons before he arrived, had seven winning records and went to the playoffs five times. They won one playoff game.
This is the 16th season since Payton became the Saints head coach, though he is quick to remind anyone who forgets – or fails to point out – that he wasn’t the coach of record in 2012 as he served a one-year NFL-imposed suspension for his role in “Bountygate.”
During Payton’s tenure the Saints have had nine winning seasons, gone to the playoffs nine times and won nine playoff games, including a Super Bowl.
“I think from the beginning he had a vision,” said offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Payton’s lieutenant this entire time. “He built a foundation of how he wanted everything (to be). He has his hands on everything and he has a clear vision of what winning teams, winning organizations do and he’s created that culture here.”
The Saints have won four consecutive NFC South championships and begin pursuit of a fifth in earnest when they open the season against Green Bay on Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville, Fla. They have the best cumulative regular-season record during that span.
This year’s roster features 15 new players and more summer turnover than any in recent memory. Of course the retirement of Drew Brees ushers in a new era but even though his departure presents a unique challenge, Payton has periodically reshaped the Saints in other ways without first bottoming out.
“Every year it’s a different team and every year it’s finding ways to put your players in those spots to be successful whatever that is,” Carmichael said.
This year’s team features Jameis Winston as the staring quarterback, the only person other than Brees to enter a season as the leader of Payton’s offense.
“From every position we’re looking at what’s putting all of our guys, starting with the quarterback, in position to have success,” Carmichael said. “As you’re game planning and putting the package together at that point you’re saying, ‘hey, what can we do to put our guys in the best position to be successful?’”
Payton took control of the Saints football operation at one of its lowest points ever – after the 2005 team collapsed to a 3-13 record under the weight a displaced season due to Hurricane Katrina – and has guided it to unprecedented heights. Along the way he has become one the second longest-tenured coach in the NFL.
His first Saints team made the organization’s first trip to the NFC Championship, where it lost to the Bears in frigid Chicago.
After 7-9 and 8-8 seasons, Payton’s 2009 team won its first 13 games, brushed off a 0-3 finish to the regular season, won playoff games against Arizona and Minnesota and defeated Indianapolis in the Super Bowl in Miami.
The Saints made two more playoff appearances before Payton was sidelined and the 2012 team – guided on an interim basis by Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt – stumbled to a 7-9 record. That matches the worst record the Saints have had since Payton arrived.
A 7-9 floor during a 15-year (or 16-year) tenure as an NFL head coach is pretty remarkable. Even in Payton’s absence in 2012 the Saints didn’t bottom out the way most NFL teams do periodically.
The Saints’ relative competitiveness in Payton’s absence is not suggestive of his value being less than most assume, but rather it is demonstrative of the program he has built, that it could endure his absence as well as it did.
His personal significance was shown clearly when he returned in 2013 and the Saints immediately returned to the playoffs with an 11-5 record.
Then came the nadir of Payton’s tenure (2014-16). A series of poor decisions in free agency and drafting helped produce three consecutive 7-9 finishes.
The addition of Jeff Ireland to the football operation to oversee college personnel helped create a bonanza draft in 2017 that included Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams and Alvin Kamara.
That rookie class helped the Saints finish 11-5 and start the current streak of division championships.
The pre-2017 drafting blunders were exacerbated by personnel decisions that brought in players whose character didn’t fit the team’s culture.
Payton re-emphasized character in rebuilding the roster and the aforementioned draft choices, and others, along with free agents such as Demario Davis and Malcolm Jenkins helped put Payton’s program back on track.
“(Payton) builds a locker room with players that he feels great about, that are smart, character, team guys,” Carmichael said. “You can go through every department in the building and (see) he’s hiring the right guys.”
They have shown they are the “right guys” by how they responded to playing without Brees while he was injured for a total of nine games the last two seasons.
The Saints went 3-1 last season while Taysom Hill, who had never previously started an NFL game at quarterback or thrown a touchdown pass, filled in for Brees.
On the eve of a game at Denver, the Broncos lost all four of their quarterbacks because of COVID-19 concerns.
They turned to practice squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton, who had been a quarterback in college.
As soon as he learned of the development, Payton decided a low-risk battle of attrition made more sense than risking turnovers that might give a boost to the outmanned opponent and scrapped his game plan.
Hill passed for a mere 78 yards, but the Saints ran for 229 and the defense dominated in a methodical 31-3 victory.
In 2019 the Saints went 5-0 when Teddy Bridgewater substituted for Brees after Brees underwent in-season thumb surgery.
Payton didn’t expect Bridgewater to be Brees, nor did he become timid in tailoring the offense to the backup.
Bridgewater was efficient and effective and the entire team embraced the opportunity to collectively overcome the absence of Brees.
The Saints scored touchdowns on a punt return and a fumble return in a win against Seattle. They beat Dallas without scoring a touchdown. Bridgewater passed for more 300 yards in a win against Tampa Bay. The defense held Jacksonville to 226 yards in another win, and Bridgewater passed for 281 yards as the Saints beat Chicago even as Alvin Kamara joined Brees on the sideline.
“There’s a chemistry of how you’re going to approach each game and he always has a vision of, ‘hey these are some of the things for this particular game that we have to do to win.’” Carmichael said. “He’s not focusing on stats, he’s focusing on what it takes to win each individual game.”
Hill himself is an example of Payton’s personnel acumen. When Green Bay released the former BYU quarterback after the 2017 preseason the Saints claimed him because Payton had “a vision” for him.
It’s a term Payton frequently uses for a clear idea of how the distinctive traits of an individual can be maximized even if it requires crafting an unorthodox role. Hill has thrived as a part-time quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end and special teams leader.
He’s liable to get opportunities at any or all of those positions in Sunday’s opener.
When the Saints drafted Jenkins in the first round in 2009, the rookie’s first season was the head coach’s fourth. Jenkins left after the 2013 season as a free agent and returned last season to find a more experienced coach.
Payton went old school for his first training camp as a head coach in the Spartan conditions at MillsapsCollege in Jackson, Miss., toughening up his team with two-a-day practices in stifling heat and humidity.
Since then the approach to training camp has changed, some due to evolving data on conditioning, some due to NFL-mandated changes made in consultation with the players association.
“We’re a traditional sport that trains a certain way because it’s the way we’ve always done it,” Jenkins said. “But when you start to look at different rules like no more two-a-days and the ramp-up period instead of just getting thrown into the fire in training camp, all of that is different and I think Sean embraces those changes and those advances in technology and understands what recovery does and makes sure that we can train hard but also sustain over the length of the season.”
Adaptability has been one of the keys to Payton’s success. The nearly two weeks that the Saints have been displaced to the Dallas-Forth Worth area because of Hurricane Ida is just the latest example.
The Saints have been displaced by multiple other storms, stayed on the West Coast during the season to avoid back-to-back long trips, played in London on multiple occasions and altered their preparation to accommodate Thursday games, Monday night games, Saturday games and Sunday night games.
One would be hard-pressed to find examples of Payton’s team allowing disruptions to their routine to negatively impact them.
Granted, replacing the most prolific passer in NFL history is a bit more challenging to adjusting to a short practice week.
But to think Payton isn’t prepared to overcome even the retirement of Brees is to ignore the coach’s track record.
“To me that’s the sign of whether you have something that’s going to stand the test of time,” Jenkins said, comparing the younger Payton to a rookie that takes the league by storm, then has to adapt.
“You might bring something that’s new and innovative to the game,” Jenkins said, “but you better believe that every off-season somebody is studying the tape and figuring out how to take advantage of what you do.
“Teams, players and coaches that can adapt every single year based off who’s on the roster, based off what you do best, based off of age, based off of all those things (have sustainable success). As players, the older you get the smarter you need to be or the better your technique needs to be. It’s no different with coaches and I think Sean is the reason why the culture of the Saints has been maintained over such a long time.”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…