JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- At some point down the road, a group of Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors will be debating the merits of New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton. These past two weeks should be part of their discussion.
He made a smoother transition from Drew Brees to Jameis Winston at quarterback than anyone could have expected. Heck, Winston looked like vintage Brees with his smart, efficient mastery of the game plan (until he threw in a 55-yard stick of dynamite for good measure in the fourth quarter with his fifth TD pass of the game).
Payton’s game plan was brilliant against a Packers team that had won a high-scoring affair against the Saints in the Superdome last September. This time, the Saints dominated both lines of scrimmage and patiently controlled the clock, wearing down Green Bay’s defense in the Jacksonville heat with nearly 22 minutes of possession in the first half. And Payton’s well-designed tight end screen pass on an aggressive fourth-and-7 conversion in the second quarter was a thing of beauty.
The Saints’ decision to play this game in Jacksonville in the first place was vintage Payton at his shrewdest. NOLA.com’s Jeff Duncan chronicled the wide variety of factors the Saints considered when choosing their temporary home venue in the wake of Hurricane Ida -- including Aaron Rodgers’ pedestrian track record in the state of Florida (now 3-5) and the perceived unattractiveness of Jacksonville as a travel destination for Packers fans. And the heat (the high was 88 on Sunday) was absolutely among Payton’s No. 1 factors, because he knew he wanted to win a battle of attrition. As he acknowledged Sunday, “We felt like the hotter the better.”
Above all else, Payton has a knack for thriving amid chaos. He has always been at his best in times like these, when the Saints needed to hurriedly evacuate to Dallas as Ida approached two weeks ago before turning TCU’s football facilities into a makeshift home.
Payton was clearly energized by the challenge and by the atmosphere he knew he could create with his team in close quarters as they and their families holed up together in a Dallas hotel. And he knew his organization was built for this kind of thing, as it has shown in past hurricane evacuations and full weeks spent in Seattle, London and other places.
Over the past two weeks, Payton repeatedly insisted that he thought the focus of his team could increase in this situation instead of the opposite. It was reminiscent of the team’s response in Seattle two years ago after it suffered an ugly loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 2 and lost Brees to a significant thumb injury.
“There’s something about a road trip that just makes Sean like a little kid on Christmas,” Saints running back Alvin Kamara said with a big laugh. “Man, Sean loves that. I feel like we’re always locked in. ... But it’s nice to see guys just be together and be focused. Everybody was locked in like we were at home.”
After the game, Payton awarded a game ball to recognize the efforts of everyone in the organization who made the past two weeks as smooth as possible behind the scenes, from owner Gayle Benson to executive director of administration Jay Romig to the operations department; equipment staff; IT department; training, medical and nutrition staff; public relations department; scouting department, etc.
“The best thing I’ve seen, a gift Sean has, is his ability to think ahead and to never be thrown off balance,” Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. “Any team, any organization is only gonna go as far as its leadership. And I think he’s the epitome of great leadership. He’s very good at letting us know, ‘This is how things are gonna play out.’ And even in a situation like this where it’s so much unexpected, his ability to pivot and focus on the task at hand and block out everything so we can get the job done, I think he does that very well. Probably as good as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
And let’s face it, Payton is also like a kid on Christmas when he gets the chance to prove someone wrong. He has a well-earned reputation as one of the most fiery and competitive coaches in the sport. And he was no doubt fueled by the challenge of proving this team wouldn’t be sunk without Brees or the nine other starters who were missing from last season's lineup because of injuries, suspension and an offseason salary-cap purge.
The Saints are now 9-1 over the past three seasons with someone other than Brees at quarterback. As spectacular as the Payton-Brees duo was over the past 15 years, Payton is also energized by the challenge to prove he can have success with a completely different style of quarterback in Winston -- and the feeling is mutual.
“That was one of the most exciting parts for me was getting a chance to finally play for Sean Payton,” said Winston, whose face lit up when he was talking about his excitement over the fourth-and-7 conversion. “That’s just who he is. Before the game I was like, ‘Hey man, it’s a privilege to finally hear your voice in this mike.’”