Back to Basics: How Sean Payton Learned from History and Resurrected the Saints

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterNovember 17, 2017

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 5:  Head Coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints signals for someone to come to him during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 5, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The Saints defeated the Buccaneers 30-10. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, one of the best strategists in the history of football was talking to his young, upstart team about a rock-and-roll legend named Fats Domino.

Domino died last month, and as Saints coach Sean Payton likes to do on occasion with his younger group, he talked to it about history—appreciating it, learning about it, contextualizing it. In this case, he wanted to make sure his players knew about Domino's influence on music. That he was born in New Orleans and sold more than 65 million records.

"I knew I had to fill them in on his life," Payton told B/R.

Being a student of history isn't Payton's primary job, of course. Mostly, he spends his time being one of the NFL's great offensive minds, an innovator who helped Drew Brees become a prolific quarterback. Now in his 12th season under Payton, Brees is on track for his 12th consecutive 4,000-yard year, an NFL record.

But what Payton's done in 2017 has been as impressive as anything he's accomplished with Brees or the Saints before. After a handful of lackluster seasons, Payton in one year has transformed what looked to be an aging group destined for a major rebuild into a younger, dynamic Super Bowl contender.

The Saints are 7-2, have a balanced offense that no longer relies solely on Brees, and a defense that has improved from last season's ranking of 27th in yards allowed to eighth in 2017.

When we talk about Coach of the Year candidates such as Philadelphia's Doug Pederson or Jacksonville's Doug Marrone, Payton isn't mentioned as much. He should be.

He's made the Saints into the most complete, legitimate threat they've been since they beat Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season.

How did Payton do it? It isn't necessarily a sexy story, but it is a hardcore football one. It's what happens when you draft well, coach well and learn from errors.

I caught up with the longtime Saints coach recently and asked him for the three biggest reasons for the turnaround. This is what he said in a series of messages to me: 

• "No. 1. Six guys [from the last draft] playing full time roles," Payton explained. "Lattimore, OT Ramczyk, FS Williams, RB Kamara, LB [Anzalone prior to injury], DE Hendrickson."

Marshon Lattimore has helped make the Saints a top-10 defense this season after they ranked 27th last season.
Marshon Lattimore has helped make the Saints a top-10 defense this season after they ranked 27th last season.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

That's an impressive list. That's Marshon Lattimore, the 11th overall pick in last year's draft out of Ohio State. Ryan Ramczyk, the offensive tackle from Wisconsin and 32nd overall pick. Safety Marcus Williams, from Utah, a second-round pick (42nd overall). Running back Alvin Kamara, from Tennessee, a third-round pick. Linebacker Alex Anzalone, a third-round pick, who started the first four games before he was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. And defensive end Trey Hendrickson, yet another third-rounder, out of Florida Atlantic.

Few franchises have this many rookies contribute. And if they do, they usually aren't good. It's rare for a franchise to have drafted this well and for so many of those picks to contribute at such a high level.  

• "No. 2. Confidence on defense. It's only born from past performance. Weeks 3 and 4 in Carolina and England were big."

The Saints defense was historically bad in 2012, 2014 and 2015. This season started off poorly, too, but then came the two games Payton discussed. They gave up just 13 points to the Panthers on September 24, and one week later in London, they shut out the Dolphins, 20-0. Everything changed after those two games, and now this Saints defense is ferocious and opportunistic (with nine turnovers created since the return form overseas).   

• "No. 3. Offensive balance. O-line is playing well and to date weathered injuries to Unger, Armstead and Strief."

Despite injuries, the Saints offensive line has still been able to open enough holes for Mark Ingram to rush for 4.7 yards per carry this season.
Despite injuries, the Saints offensive line has still been able to open enough holes for Mark Ingram to rush for 4.7 yards per carry this season.Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

That's center Max Unger, offensive tackle Terron Armstead and offensive tackle Zach Strief to whom Payton is referring. This part of the Saints' story is among the most under-discussed. They lost three high-quality offensive linemen and yet still have two of the top-25 rushers in football in Mark Ingram (sixth in the NFL in rushing yards with 672) and Kamara (23rd, 417 yards).

During the Saints' 47-10 drubbing of the Bills last week, Payton called 24 consecutive running plays. And over the course of New Orleans' seven-game win streak, ESPN says, they've called a 50-50 split of run and pass plays.

Brees will be Brees, but having that type of running game has made the Saints, obviously a traditionally pass-happy dome team, capable of playing anywhere. This is now the type of team that can compete in snowy Philadelphia, on the grass of Carolina or on the fast track in Atlanta.

The schedule won't be easy. They are home this weekend against Washington, then at the Rams, home against a rising Carolina team, at Atlanta, home against the Jets, home against Atlanta and then at Tampa.

This Saints team, however, seems more than ready for what's to come. That's a credit to Payton, planning and plain good luck.

And who knows? If they can keep it up, they may make some history of their own next February. 

                    

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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