METAIRIE, La. — Now that Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints are back on top as the NFC’s No. 1 seed, it seems almost crazy they considered splitting up three years ago after three straight 7-9 seasons.
But then again, this renaissance over the past two years is rare in NFL history.
During the Super Bowl era, only six coaches have lasted more than 10 years with the same team and had at least two 11-win seasons after that first decade was over: Bill Belichick (nine), Tom Landry (eight), Don Shula (six), Payton (two), Bill Cowher (two) and Marvin Lewis (two).
Coaches simply don’t last in the NFL, where they have to keep their message fresh, keep hitting on the right players in the draft and in free agency, keep adapting their schemes and keep both their bosses and fans happy.
Hall of Fame coaches Bill Walsh and John Madden both left after 10 years with the 49ers and Raiders, respectively. Vince Lombardi coached only nine years in Green Bay. Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls in his first 11 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers — then only won 10 games once over his final 12 seasons.
There’s a reason why Payton’s mentor, Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, always believed it was better to leave a job too soon than stay too long. Parcells never stayed more than eight years in any of his five stops as a coach or general manager.
“That’s a very difficult task. And there aren’t many organizations that do that successfully,” said Parcells, who is impressed by Payton leading the Saints to two straight NFC South titles and 24 wins over the past two seasons heading into their divisional-round matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday (4:40 p.m. ET, Fox).
“Oh yeah, I am,” Parcells said. “With one head coach going through a couple different cycles of players, it’s always difficult. And the Saints have done a great job this year of getting that second cycle well established.”
Payton and the Saints never reached the point in January 2016 where any official trade talks occurred. But Payton at least kicked the tires on the idea. The San Francisco 49ers emerged as a possible landing spot, and the Indianapolis Colts were reportedly a consideration before one or both parties nixed the idea.
Ultimately, Payton didn’t see any available situation he liked better than what he had in New Orleans with owners Tom and Gayle Benson, general manager Mickey Loomis, quarterback Drew Brees and others. And the Saints didn’t see any other coach they preferred to oversee their latest rebuilding effort.
After a couple of tense days, Payton recommitted to the Saints with an emotional news conference. And later that year, they renewed their vows with a five-year contract extension worth more than $9 million per year.
“Listen, I enjoy coaching, and I envision myself doing it for quite a while,” Payton said the other day. “I think there’s a competitive side that we enjoy relative to coaching,” which probably added to his desire to take on the challenge of rebuilding a winner in New Orleans.
“And yet, it’s just making sure you’re in that right environment where you have a chance to win,” Payton said. “And I feel like we do here.”
It helps to nail the draft
Payton seems as invigorated as ever in this, his 13th year as coach of the Saints (he lost one season to the bounty suspension in 2012).
And he has been as innovative as ever as a playcaller, including all the new wrinkles he has added with read-option QB/TE/WR/RB Taysom Hill and his use of running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram on the field together. He ran one play with three quarterbacks on the field at the same time and Brees and Teddy Bridgewater lined up as receivers. He ran another play with nobody lined up behind center at first, with Brees and Hill both lined up as receivers before Hill shifted into position.
But Payton said the biggest key to the Saints’ rebirth was the two outstanding draft classes they had in 2016 (WR Michael Thomas, DTs Sheldon Rankins and David Onyemata, S Vonn Bell) and 2017 (Kamara, CB Marshon Lattimore, OT Ryan Ramczyk, S Marcus Williams, LB Alex Anzalone).
Parcells recognized that, too — immediately pointing to the additions of guys such as Thomas and Kamara and the improvement of a defense that used to be the Saints’ Achilles’ heel as the biggest reasons for Payton’s recent success.
Not only were those classes loaded with talent, they were also vital because the Saints desperately needed to restock the shelves.
Losing so many of their core players and leaders from their 2009 Super Bowl roster hurt the locker room culture and chemistry as much as it did anything on the field. They also had some big misses in free agency and the draft and lost two second-round draft picks as part of the bounty scandal.
The Saints have only six players on their roster who have been with the team continuously for more than four years: Brees, Ingram, punter Thomas Morstead, DE Cameron Jordan, OT Terron Armstead and TE Josh Hill.
“Look, it’s been a process. And I think the key for us has been a couple good drafts. You know, there were a slew of mistakes, and bounty, that set us back,” said Payton, who specifically mentioned his biggest regret — letting safety Malcolm Jenkins “out of the building” as a free agent in 2014, when they instead signed safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million mega-deal that never panned out.
Jenkins, who is returning to the Superdome with the Eagles this week, has won a Super Bowl and has been selected to two Pro Bowls since he left.
“And yet we’ve got the right group in the locker room. And right now, these guys are great to be around,” Payton said. “It’s still a personnel business. It’s acquiring the right talent, knowing what you’re looking for. And we’ve had real good, consistent play — outstanding play — at the quarterback position.”
The 2014 season was the low point of Payton’s tenure, when the Saints were hurt even more than expected by parting ways with longtime leaders such as Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Jenkins, Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Lance Moore and Darren Sproles all at once.
The Saints were hoping to make a smooth transition with the young defensive players who had helped lead them to a 11-5 record and the divisional round of the playoffs in 2013. Instead, they started 1-3, and the locker room culture quickly eroded, leading to a dramatic roster overhaul in 2015.
Some, such as defensive end Junior Galette, were released because of character concerns. Others, such as tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Kenny Stills, were traded because of their high market value. The Saints acquired a total of nine draft picks that year.
“Keep in mind, ’14, ’15 was really tough,” Brees said. “The locker room changed significantly, when we lost a lot of really strong leaders. All of a sudden, there was a bunch of young guys that I don’t feel like truly understood what it was to be a leader, understand the way that we had built this program and the foundation that had been laid and what the expectation level was.
“So all of a sudden, it was a little bit out of control. I felt like a lot of guys were playing selfishly for themselves, they weren’t playing for the team. So we just got a little off track. And we had to get back steered in the right direction.
“We really had to reestablish the culture. … And then last year’s draft class obviously helps out a lot.”
Still ‘the same Sean’
Brees and other players said Payton hasn’t made any major changes to his approach in recent years. But they have always admired his ability to adapt.
Longtime offensive lineman Zach Strief, who now serves as the team’s play-by-play announcer for WWL Radio, said one of the things he has admired most about Payton is the way the coach will listen and consider changes to the routine or schedule if players have a valid suggestion.
And Payton still has a knack for getting his message across — whether he uses old favorite ploys, such as mousetraps to warn players against “eating the cheese” or new ones, such as the New Orleans Advocate’s recent story on Payton’s bringing in college mascots to troll players such as Brees after a loss by their alma maters.
“It’s fun for me because I try to anticipate the story that’s coming, based upon the circumstances,” Brees said. “Like, ‘I bet you when we walk into the facility, there’s gonna be mousetraps around everywhere.’ And I’ve been right a few times. Or, ‘This is a bring-the-wood week, a wood-bat week’ (handing out bats to players to illustrate the team’s mindset). I knew the Steelers [in Week 16] were gonna be a ‘bring the wood’ team.”
Payton agreed there is nothing “specifically new” about his approach.
“There’s certain things that you begin to teach differently. Every year, you’re always evaluating how you communicate a message. So I would imagine our practice schedule in ’06 and ’07 might be a little different,” Payton said. “And yet there are some things that are exactly the same.”
Brees said it’s also important to have the right veteran players with the maturity to understand, “This still applies to me even if I’ve heard it four or five times.”
“I’ve heard that Parcells thing about coaches having a shelf life. And it is difficult to maintain that, where guys don’t just tune it out,” Brees said. “So we had a run there from, call it ’06 to ’13, it was a stable of guys who were brought in through the draft or free agency and remained for a long time. And it was the same Sean, you know. And yet, he had to find ways to still get creative with the message, even if it was the same message or the same story — and just realizing that there is turnover and there are guys that hadn’t heard it and need to hear it.
“But the coolest thing I hear … first of all, everyone who’s left here thinking the grass is greener, I’ve talked to them and they’re like, ‘Man, I didn’t realize how good it was.’ And then I hear other guys like, ‘Man, what do I have to do to get down to New Orleans?’
“So I think we’ve built up a reputation as being a great locker room. As Coach being a great coach to play for — you know, tough but fair. And a team that’s gonna be competing.”