Saints' Sean Payton Recovered From Early Setback

Guerry SmithContributor IMay 26, 2009

Former New York Giants coach Jim Fassel stripped brash, young offensive coordinator Sean Payton of his play-calling duties after the 2002 New York Giants scored 10 or fewer points in four of their first seven games.

With Fassel calling the shots, the Giants averaged 27 points, won seven of their nine games and scored 38 in a wild first-round playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Although Payton kept his title, the scoring explosion pointed to him as the real goat rather than just the scapegoat for the slow start. 

Suffice it to say he recovered from the most embarrassing time of his coaching life pretty well. His career trajectory has gone straight up while Fassel’s has gone straight down.

Fassell has been fired twice, first by the Giants two weeks before the end of the 2003 season, then by the Baltimore Ravens in October of 2006 as offensive coordinator after his unit ranked 31st, 24th and 28th in two and a half years. He has been out of the league since then and reportedly will coach the Las Vegas franchise in the upstart UFL this fall.

Payton, entering his fourth year as coach of the New Orleans Saints, is one of the most gifted quarterback tutors and daring play-callers in the NFL. He might be too daring at times – witness the botched reverse against the Tampa Bay Bucs that turned a late lead into a lousy loss two years ago – but the good far outweighs the bad.

Dallas signed Tony Romo as an undrafted rookie at Payton’s urging in 2003. The payoff: two Pro-Bowl appearances.

New Orleans signed free agent Drew Brees with Payton’s support three months after they hired him in 2006 even though Brees was coming off elbow surgery.

The payoff?

The Saints led the NFL in total offense and passing offense while finishing fifth in Payton’s first year.

They were fourth in total offense, third in passing and 12th in scoring in 2007.

Last year, they ranked first in all three categories even though running backs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, wide receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey missed significant time with injuries. Pierre Thomas, the Saints’ leading rusher, was an undrafted free agent. Lance Moore, their leading receiver, had 33 career catches entering the season and was considered a complementary player at best.

Brees was the only marquee guy who stayed healthy, but Payton’s offense didn’t miss a beat.

Payton, 45, cannot be classified as a protégé of any other coach. His pass-heavy, aggressive approach is nothing like the two men he considers his closest NFL mentors.

He learned how to coach offense in the NFL from Jon Gruden, the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 1997 when he took his first NFL job there as QB coach.

He learned organizational skills from Parcells, who hired him in Dallas before the Giants could fire him at the end of 2002. 

Gruden’s offenses were conservative at Tampa Bay. Parcells’ offenses have been conservative almost everywhere.

Before his setback in New York, Payton made his name there. Fassel asked him to call the plays for the first time in a Dec. 5 game against the New York Jets when he was just the quarterbacks coach. The Giants exploded for 41 points and 490 yards.

They reached the Super Bowl in 2000 with Payton as offensive coordinator and play-caller. Under his guidance, quarterback Kerry Collins threw for a career-high 3,610 yards.

Then, suddenly, Payton was done as a play-caller for three years. He did not regain that duty until 2005, when Parcells named him passing game coordinator in Dallas.

He has total control of the offense in New Orleans. Although he does not get in the way of his assistants, it’s his show.

When former offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Doug Marrone accepted the Syracuse coaching job last December, Payton let him leave before the end of the season, and the staff operated shorthanded for the last two games.

No harm there since Payton is the de-facto coordinator. New Orleans scored 42 and 31 points.

Most of his assistants in New Orleans had limited NFL backgrounds when he hired them.

Running backs coach Brett Ingalls, wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson and tight ends coach Terry Malone became first-time NFL assistants in 2006.

New offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr. did not become a full NFL position coach until Payton hired him to work with the quarterbacks in 2006. 

Quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi was at tiny Mercyhurst College from 2002-05.

Line coach Aaron Kromer, who held the same role with the Oakland Raiders when they played in the 2003 Super Bowl, is the only offensive assistant with real autonomy.

The makeup of the defensive staff, away from Payton’s expertise, is completely different.

New coordinator Gregg Williams, new line coach Bill Johnson (replacing Ed Orgeron, who left for a college job at Tennessee), linebackers coach Joe Vitt and secondary coach Dennis Allen have 64 years of NFL experience among them.

Williams’ experience could help him succeed where former defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs failed.

Gibbs, a first-time NFL coordinator, did not have the same credibility as Payton. 

Williams does.

His reference list includes legendary 46 defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who was with the Tennessee Titans in 1993 when Williams was special teams coach, Titans coach Jeff Fisher, whom he worked under from 1994 to 2000, and Joe Gibbs. Gibbs hired him to be defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins in 2004 after his failed three-year stint as Buffalo Bills coach.

Williams, 50, chose New Orleans over Green Bay even though he and Payton did not know each other well. Williams wanted to coach along side a prolific offense. Payton wanted a proven winner.

The brash young coach has grown up.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.