METAIRIE, La. -- When the New Orleans Saints ruled out running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook on Friday -- in addition to quarterback Drew Brees -- at least half a dozen Saints and NFL analysts made some version of the same decree:
If the Saints go into Chicago and win this week, you might as well hand Sean Payton the Coach of the Year award on the spot.
Well, the Saints didn’t just beat the Bears. They dismantled them with a 36-25 win that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score indicated. And Payton even got into a little of his trademark trash-talking on the sideline toward the end of the trouncing.
Afterward, I was texting with a personnel executive from another team who suggested that the Saints are going to be awfully hard to beat when they add those offensive pieces back to a defense that has been dominant for the past month.
But the first comment this executive gave before anything else was, “Sean is locked in.”
I’ve covered the Saints throughout the entire Payton-Brees era. And I’m not yet ready to proclaim that he’s doing a better job this year than he did in 2006 (when he won his only Associated Press Coach of the Year award in his debut season). Or in 2009 (when he won his only Super Bowl). Or in 2011 (when the Saints set the NFL record for yards gained in a season, which still stands).
But a strong argument could be made that this 5-0 stretch while Brees has been sidelined by a thumb injury is among his best work. Or, at the very least, that Payton is proving once and for all that he’s not just reliant on Brees to be one of the greatest coaches of his generation.
“What Sean’s always done a great job of doing is just playing to the strengths of what’s available,” Brees told me after Sunday’s game. “You’ve seen all the guys that we’ve had come through here over the years. And Sean has a great way of not only finding what those strengths are, but then being able to utilize them, and then finding the weaknesses of whatever defense we’re going up against and trying to exploit that.”
Brees, who plans to return to practice this week and hopes to play as soon as Week 8, obviously knows about Payton’s ability to dial it up. Since the dynamic duo arrived together in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints have gained about 5,000 more passing yards and 3,000 more total yards than any other team in the NFL.
But Brees has also seen Payton reinvent the Saints’ offense as a run-heavy team over the past two-plus years while putting together a 30-9 regular-season record. And they have been winning with an especially conservative approach under backup QB Teddy Bridgewater, with winning scores like 12-10 and 13-6.
“He’s obviously a very aggressive playcaller, right?” Brees said. “But then he also understands the value of wearing a team down in the run game. And then how that’s gonna set up the [big-play] shot game. And then, listen, ‘We’ll call [a shot play], but don’t be afraid to check it down if it’s not there, and we’ll call it again later.’ So his play calling, his instincts, his ability to cater to the guys that are out there and put them in the best positions to succeed are second to none.”
And obviously his creativity.
You need look no further than the use of third-string quarterback/running back/tight end/receiver/special-teams dynamo Taysom Hill over the past two years to see that. Payton and Hill were at it again on Sunday in Chicago when the Saints converted a key third-and-1 on a play in which Bridgewater handed the ball off to fullback Zach Line, who then pitched it to Hill for a 23-yard gain. Later on the drive, Bridgewater threw a 4-yard TD pass to his fellow QB.
But Payton’s coaching credentials go far beyond his brilliance as an offensive game-planner and playcaller.
A disciple of Bill Parcells, he has always been well known for his motivational tactics. And he exudes a confidence that rubs off on his players.
As I wrote when Brees suffered the injury last month, players could see that Payton was relishing the opportunity to coach his way through a situation when many on the outside were doubting his team.
And Payton’s fervor was especially hard to miss Sunday when he was particularly animated on the sideline as the Saints were piling on the Bears late in the game.
“What Sean brings, he brings that consistent energy. Especially when you see him game day,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said with a laugh. “Nobody’s more hyped than him.
“You know what you’re gonna get out of him until you get to Sunday -- and then you’re gonna get more.”
“Sean’s a player. He’s an honorary player,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins added. “He doesn’t go out there and throw a pass or tackle anybody. But when you talk to him -- especially on game day -- he’s a different person. I always tell people that when they first get here. I’m like, there’s ‘through-the-week Sean’ and there’s ‘game-day Sean.’ Those are two totally different people. Don’t cross ‘game-day Sean.’ Just give him his Juicy Fruit, let him coach and don’t f--- up. That’s pretty much the best advice I can give you.”
Payton also knows when to turn it down. Jordan credited him for backing off the banged-up team in practice this past week with a lighter workload.
When asked last week if he has actually enjoyed some of the coaching and game-planning challenges that come along with all of the offensive injuries this season, Payton said, "I think it’s part of coaching. We’re always kind of in a little bit of flux."
"I don’t know if you ever get used to it, but you understand that’s part of the deal," said Payton, who said that after Brees was injured, the Saints' staff watched every one of Bridgewater's throws with the Minnesota Vikings in 2015 -- his last year as a starter. "I think there’s always that challenge of putting the right plan together. I don’t want to say pressure. But you’re always wanting to make sure you’ve seen everything, you’ve thought through everything,"
It's too early to truly declare Payton the front-runner for Coach of the Year in a crowded field that also includes an undefeated Kyle Shanahan with the San Francisco 49ers, a dominating Bill Belichick with the Patriots, a resilient Frank Reich with the Indianapolis Colts and a rising Matt LaFleur with the Green Bay Packers, among others.
But it would be foolish to bet against a “locked-in” Payton after what we have seen so far.