Through ups and downs, Saints head coach has team primed for playoff performance
As the NFL season enters the divisional round of the playoffs with eight of its 32 teams still in contention for a Super Bowl title, media coverage narrows its focus to those left in the race. In addition to reporting hard news – on-the-field stories – national and local media get the opportunity to produce soft news stories and articles that add depth and color to the players and coaches behind the teams.
Since the Saints haven’t played a meaningful games since December 23, there has been extra time for writers and reporters covering the Black & Gold to cultivate pieces that get beyond the Xs and Os. This week, as the excitement continuously builds for the Saints meeting with the reigning Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles there have been several articles looking into the success behind the Saints. Some of the best have been about head coach Sean Payton and his up-and-down 12-year tenure as the team’s leader.
Payton, the 10th head coach in Saints history, became a darling of New Orleans in his first season, although an ESPN.com article by Bill Barnwell argues that the Crescent City was not his first choice. Green Bay was. Barnwell describes how Payton was concerned about recruiting coaches and players to the city just four months after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. All he did was change franchise history by signing quarterback Drew Brees and assembling a 2006 team that went 10-6 after a 3-13 debacle in 2005 and played the franchise’s first conference championship game. After two mediocre years in 2007 and 2008, he led them to their best record in franchise history and first and only Super Bowl championship. The team seemed ready to steamroll the league. The team continued to make the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, in which they may have had their most talented team ever.
Then came 2012. For several years prior, the NFL was taken to task for the effects of the violence of the game had on current and former players, especially, their long-term mental health due to concussions and associated brain damage. With several lawsuits pending, the league needed to show it was taking a stand. When news broke that the Saints had a cash pool that was awarded to lower-paid players who made game-impacting plays, the league charged the Saints with running a bounty program to hurt opposing players. The league suspended Payton and then defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for the season. General manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt were also suspended for the first six games.
It was here that then Saints owner Tom Benson had cause and could have shown Payton the door. Instead the Saints stuck with their coach, who spent the football season working with his then 11-year-old son Connor’s school football team. Conor Orr describes “The Saints’ Lost Season” in a Sports Illustrated article released this week.
The Saints went 7-9 without Payton, then rebounded with an 11-5 season in 2013. Then the wheels seemed to come off as the team had three straight 7-9 seasons from 2014-2016. The team failed to draft and sign free agent players to replace the stars who had lifted the Saints to their greatest heights. Again, it looked like the Saints would have had every reason to part ways with their coach – and several in the front office, as well – and move on to a new era. Again, Benson stuck with Payton and the brain trust he installed to run the team. The Saints had an amazing draft in 2017, landing both the offensive and defensive rookies of the year. Rejuvenated, the team posted an 11-5 record, won the division, and made a playoff run. They were knocked out by a fluke, last-second play in the divisional round of the playoffs, but they had a spark. They had a strong, championship-caliber team that was returning, mostly, intact.
This year, the Saints went 13-3 for the third time in their 52-year history and won back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history. Along the way, they have been called the best team in the league and favorite to win the Super Bowl.
After the team lost two of its last five games and saw its offensive production fall after Thanksgiving, there has been speculation that the Saints peaked in the regular season and may be too banged up to continue their dominance through the postseason. With many of the team’s stars on the sideline for the season finale and off during a first-round bye, Payton had to find a way to get his team’s attention, bring them together, and motivate them.
In an espn.com article, Saints beat writer Mike Triplett describes how, on Monday, he met the team flanked by three armed guards, the Vince Lombardi Trophy, a Super Bowl ring, and a stack of $201,000 cash – the rewards each player would get if they win out. With their undivided attention, he asked, “Y’all want this??? Win 3 F***in’ games.”
His players responded with an eruption of enthusiasm that will, hopefully carry them through to the end.
In 12 years, Payton has completely transformed the Saints’ franchise. Where New Orleans was once only considered the best host for the Super Bowl, it is now considered among the best to contend for it. Where it was once a place for players to avoid, it is now a destination seen as a place to make dreams come true. There have, no doubt, been some down times in Payton’s tenure as Saints head coach, but he’s become one of the league’s best, too. If he can win a second Super Bowl nine years removed from his first, he will cement a legacy that will compare with some of the greatest of all time. To get there, though, there are three games left.