Sean Payton's offensive system has been in place in New Orleans since 2006 when he arrived with Drew Brees. Since then, he has gone 73-39 in the regular season, 6-4 in the playoffs, and he has a Super Bowl under his belt. It's well-established by now that Payton calls his own plays, rather than allowing offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. to run the offense. He only has one season under .500 in his head coaching career, 2007 (2012 didn't count since he didn't coach that team), and he has done all of this with a franchise that was starving for success before his arrival.
But what makes Payton so good? It's not all deep balls and dropbacks like so many people believe. The reason that Payton is such a special coach is because of his ability to exploit a defense through patience and timing. Having Brees doesn't hurt, but it doesn't all come down to him as many people believe. The Saints run a ton of offensive formations and shifts with different personnel in order to create mismatches against smaller or slower defenders.
The Saints run a glorified West Coast offense at this point in time. It has a lot of bells and whistles, but at the end of the day it relies on underneath routes and the running game to draw defenses in before tearing them apart down the field. This is the reason that receivers like Robert Meachem can be effective. He's an above-average run blocking receiver with the ability to blow the top off of a defense, which makes more sense of his re-signing on Friday.
The single best example of a Sean Payton offense creating a mismatch came in Week 2 last season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
New Orleans is out in a basic three wide receiver set. They have Marques Colston lined up in the slot (red circle). This is with 0:24 left in the game down by one point with no timeouts. To this point, the Saints offense has struggled. Brees sees man-to-man in the slot between Colston and Leonard Johnson, a young corner with little experience against top-flight receivers, and quickly goes through a series of audibles and checks at the line.
As this play begins, there is absolutely no question where Brees is going with the football. He is staring down Colston. They teach you not to do this in quarterbacking 101, but this play is just mano-a-mano, Colston vs. Johnson. To this point, Colston has created very little separation, but he's just running a straight fly. Another thing to note is the Buccaneer defense. They're in man to man across the board with a single safety high, so they're running the risk of giving up the big play in an attempt to make an even bigger one.
Sometimes, as a corner, you can do everything right and still not be able to make that one huge play. Such is the case with Johnson. A slot corner against a number one receiver with Colston's size will rarely pan out for the defensive guy. Johnson does everything right on this play. He hangs with Colston, but Colston just gets that one extra step, and that's all she wrote. Colston catches the pass for 31 yards, Brees spikes it with :06 left, Saints win on a last second field goal. Johnson played this play the best that a defensive coach could possibly ask him to, but Payton (and Brees') simple decision to take the number one guy and move him to the slot was the reason New Orleans pulled out the early season win despite an overall shaky offensive performance.
However, a play like this could be deemed extrapolative. Payton's offense isn't based entirely around a mismatch game. To watch a Sean Payton offense really go, one needn't look any further than the New Orleans/Dallas 2013 showdown. Granted, this one was in the dome so there wasn't a lot of hope to begin with, but the numbers in this game are staggering. The Saints passed the ball 41 times, and they rushed it 38 times. They picked up 40 first downs in the game on 80 plays (that extra one play was a sack). 50% of their plays went for first downs.
The stat line was what you'd expect from a stat like that. Brees went 34-41 passing with 392 yards and 4 touchdowns. Mark Ingram picked up his first career 100 yard game in a big way, carrying it 14 times for 145 yards. Nine Saints players had receptions, another staple of the Payton offense. There's a reason he's called a fantasy owner's nightmare. The Saints ripped off yardage in chunks against the depleted Dallas defense, and it was all with Payton at the helm.
On their first play of the game, the Saints come out with a two tight end set. The two receivers on the field are slightly off screen, on the shoulders of each tight end in this play. The symmetry of this formation sets the strong side as the right side by default, but this doesn't lend any hint towards which side they're going. Historically, this is a passing formation for the Saints, exacerbated by the fact that Josh Hill and Benjamin Watson are both good receiving tight ends, and slightly subpar run blocking ones.
At the snap, everyone immediately pulls. The slight moment of hesitation from Bruce Carter (#54) and the excellent blocking from Colston (neutralizing the outside corner) allows Pierre Thomas to reach the edge and gain seven yards. This would set the pace for the game.
Almost every time Brees lines up under center, he is either running play action or handing it off. This causes defenses to freeze at the line, thus giving Brees time to read the defense. Against a Tampa 2 like the one that Dallas employed last season, time is the last thing a quarterback like Brees should be given.
Brees is one of the best in the league at reading a defense whilst under center. To this point, the Saints have been running the ball effectively and, perhaps more importantly, their short to intermediate routes have succeeded. They rarely went deep against Dallas, most of their yards came after the catch. In fact, in the entire game, Brees threw the ball deeper than 15 yards on four of his 34 completions. This play is one of the few times that they did decide to sling it.
This is immediately after the play action. Justin Durant (#52, the linebacker half-turned) swivels his hips far too late to try and get down the field. Once he realizes Brees is still holding it, he tries to turn up-field and bails on a dead sprint.
Fascinatingly, Colston runs a 20 yard out. It's not often that a receiver has enough time to complete that route. The red circle here is Colston, the blue is Durant playing catchup. The holes in this zone are far too wide and they're exacerbated by an effective play action, which was, of course, set up by an effective running game leading up to this play. The Saints gain 20 yards on this play due to a smart read from Brees and a good job of finding the soft spot in the zone from Colston.
One thing Payton does very well is plays to his players' strengths, a rare talent for a coach. He implemented a zone blocking scheme for the sake of Ingram, he lined Sproles up as a receiver frequently, and he used swings and screens in order to help Pierre Thomas out of the backfield. This gives him more freedom within the offense, and doesn't limit the New Orleans offense based on talent.
The reason that this isn't a true West Coast offense is due to the packages. The West Coast offense is usually out of the "I" formation and rarely utilizes the shotgun. It uses short to intermediate routes and the running game to stretch a defense out. Exactly like the Saints.
Over the past few years, we've seen screens and swings instead of the running game, but if last year's playoff game against the Eagles was any indication, Payton really wants to go back to a more traditional WCO, which I've made my opinion very clear on before.
One thing is for certain: Payton will never cease to surprise us. It would take days to delve into detail on every aspect of the Saints offense. The reason that such a complicated offense can succeed is because the quarterback and coach have such tremendous chemistry. Everyone is in new positions at every snap, and that's why they're so fun to watch.
The Saints still have a top tier offense. They'll continue to as long as Brees is at the helm. Payton has been amazing for the team, and this trend will only continue due to his complex offensive schemes and the effectiveness that New Orleans continues to show at implementing them. It will be interesting to see how he adapts in the near future, and to see how new personnel will influence his play-calling.