When he came to New Orleans in 2006 and took a beleaguered franchise straight to the NFC Championship Game, we just assumed Sean Payton would do it every year.
He was the next super coach and it would only be a matter of time before he had the New Orleans Saints taking the next step. His offensive genius would carry the Saints to win after win and it would seem easy.
The only problem was, it didn’t work out anywhere close to that way. Through injuries, bad luck and maybe even some mistakes by Payton, the Saints were mediocre in 2007 and 2008. It wasn’t that Payton suddenly went from being a good coach to a bad one or that he was lucky in his first season. This guy always has had some very good things going for him.
In his fourth season, however, it’s more than fair to say Payton has grown immensely as a head coach.
“I guess you’d say more traveled in having gone through these games,’’ Payton said Sunday. “Each week you learn things about yourself and about your team and about your preparation. I thought last week we had good focus. I felt like our guys were looking forward to playing. The way we practiced was a real good sign that we were ready. To answer your question, I think just from the experience you learn more as a coach, and I think the other thing that’s important is that you never want to stop learning.”
Give Payton lots of praise for the last part of that answer. It sounds like nothing more than a common-sense answer, but it’s significant. Around the league, there are many coaches who believe their system is right and they stubbornly stick to it no matter what. The Carolina Panthers' John Fox comes quickly to mind, largely because he’s the coach I’ve dealt with most. Fox has a system he believes in and it’s a very good one, but he’s been unwilling to show any flexibility. It's one reason he’s never had back-to-back playoff seasons.
Payton and Fox are very close friends and came up together as assistants with the New York Giants. But there’s one difference between Payton and Fox -- and Payton and most coaches, actually -- that’s become very evident this season.
Payton’s willingness to be introspective and makes changes make him a better coach. That worked marvelously this season, and it’s a major reason Payton has the Saints back in the NFC Championship Game.
Let’s examine the ways Payton has made himself a better coach.
He swallowed his pride. Payton always has been a wonderful offensive mind, and it’s easy to be that when you’ve got Drew Brees as your quarterback. But one thing became painfully obvious the past two seasons: No matter how many points the Saints scored on offense, they weren’t winning consistently because their defense couldn’t stop anyone.
Not every coach can do this, but Payton sat down after last season and realized he had to make dramatic changes to his defense. He fired Gary Gibbs, the defensive coordinator he had hired at the start. That’s not an easy move for any coach to make. Payton aggressively recruited Gregg Williams to replace Gibbs. Payton even kicked $250,000 of his own salary over to Williams.
The results have been obvious. Williams came in preaching an aggressive, physical style of defense. It worked wonderfully early on, but the defense hit a lull after some injuries. However, the defense bounced back very strongly in the playoff win against the Arizona Cardinals. There’s the old cliché about defense winning championships. That doesn’t really apply to the Saints. If they win a championship, it will be because they’ve got a great offense and a better defense than they've had the past few years.
He committed to the running game. This decision was made about the same time the changes on defense were made, and it shows Payton was doing some of his clearest and best thinking immediately after last season. If nothing else, last season showed the offense couldn’t be all Brees, even as he was throwing for more than 5,000 yards. All too often the Saints were building leads and then they were unable to protect them because they couldn’t run out the clock.
Payton wasn’t about to take the ball out of Brees’ hands and suddenly go to a power running game. But he needed a running game that was a bit of a consistent threat and good enough to run some clock. Instead of doing anything dramatic, he stayed with what was on his roster and developed a nice combination using Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and a little bit of Reggie Bush.
He figured out how to use Bush. Back when Bush was the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2006, people thought he’d touch the ball 30 times a game and be flat-out dominant. But Bush isn’t that kind of running back. He’s a combination of a running back, receiver and a return man. Payton always has grasped that Bush is a multidimensional threat, but he’s gotten better at picking and choosing when and where to use Bush.
He’s learned to hit the brakes -- just a bit. One area where Payton has excelled this season is reading his team and knowing when to go hard and when to go soft. He gave the Saints a lot of time off during their byes in the regular season and postseason, and pulled training camp out of Jackson, Miss., back to Metairie, La. Payton also has been hard on his team and challenged it at times.
Working that balance successfully is the mark of a truly good coach. There’s a temptation for any coach -- really any person -- to excel all the time, and human nature says you do that by going all out. Back in my newspaper days, I once had a young assignment editor who was trying to make a name for himself and his foot was always on the gas pedal. We used to joke that if he were a baseball manager, he’d throw Roger Clemens nine innings every day of the season and have him throw nothing but 98 mph fastballs.
When you do that, you risk burnout -- and pitching arms breaking down. Payton’s realized that and knows when to hit the gas pedal and when to hit the brakes.
In his fourth season, maybe Payton is the next super coach, and it’s largely because he’s worked hard to develop into that role.