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Sean Payton: Risk-taker or Saints Savior?

Is Sean Payton too aggressive or is he just what the Saints need?

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints
Payton and Brees cooking up some’n special!
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

What’s up Who Dats!? With the close of the New Orleans Saints 2018 season, I decided to spend some time reflecting on the wild 14-4 ride. Outside of the controversial ending, the season was a nice follow up to an 11-5 campaign in 2017. Though the Black & Gold fell just short of the ultimate business trip aka Super Bowl 53, there is not much to complain about.

However, as is common when collecting opinions from the masses, not everyone is happy about the season’s course. There were grumblings about Michael Thomas not having a reliable sidekick, the defense being vulnerable versus the pass all year, two first rounders being traded for Marcus Davenport, and Sean Payton’s aggressive play-calling. I agree that Thomas needs a runnin’ buddy and that the pass defense was suspect at times. I think it’s too early to call on Davenport, though his untimely injury definitely works against him. But one point that I will argue with anyone is Payton’s aggressive nature being a problem.

And that is where we’ll begin. Is Payton just an egotistical jerk or just a guy who naturally shuns conventional wisdom to listen to his gut and the data that supports his risk taking. If it isn’t clear, I’m #TeamPayton on this. I believe the thing that makes him a rock solid coach also brings him under fire the most. To support my position, I’m going to offer a few examples of wins and losses that are based on Payton disregarding what others would do and ‘rolling the dice’.

Let’s start here, November 3rd, 2013, the Saints are on the road facing the New York Jets and former Saint, Chris Ivory. On 4th and inches, Payton dials up a tight end reverse to Josh Hill who is dropped for an 8 yard loss. On the surface, it looks like poor judgement, but had it been successful, the cheers would’ve been at a high. Moving on from 2013 to 2018, there were a couple of notable misses. After a successful gadget play to, multi-use player, Taysom Hill versus the Cleveland Browns, two pass plays were called that nearly left too much time on the clock for the Browns to rally.

Later, on the road, riding a 10 game win streak, the Saints faced 4th and goal from the 2 yard line. While trailing the Dallas Cowboys in the 1st half, Payton goes for it. From shotgun, Drew Brees hands off to Alvin Kamara, who is swarmed by multiple defenders and dropped for a loss. Many fans would’ve gladly taken 3 points from a chip shot field goal. But that’s just not who Payton is in general.

Throughout the season, Payton would take some calculated shots that paid off and we’ll get to those later. But first we must talk about the waning moments of the NFC Championship Game. Specifically, the Saints final drive in know the one. After a 42 yard heave to Ted Ginn, the Saints were set up, 1st and 10 from the Los Angeles Rams 15 yard line. With just over 2 minutes to play, a few run plays would bleed the Rams timeouts and the clock, setting the table for a go-ahead field goal with less than a minute to play. However, expecting a run play, the Rams loaded up to stop the Saints. Identifying the defense, Brees checked to a quick pass with his first read being Michael Thomas. It was as routine of a pitch and catch as you could imagine and perfect against what the defense was showing. Unfortunately, Brees tossed a ground ball that was a tad too low for Thomas to corral and the clock stopped heading to 2nd down.

The play left many questioning Payton’s sanity but neglect to consider that a run play was originally called and Brees used his executive on field powers to audible out of it. But Payton wears the badge of shame for this one and he shouldn’t. There is no need to rehash the subsequent events, we all know how things turned out.

Now let’s shift our focus to the wins, the times that Payton got it right. I believe it’s appropriate to start with February 7th, 2010. The Saints are trailing the Indianapolis Colts at halftime of Super Bowl 44. Knowing his team could use spark and having the need to ‘steal a possession’, Payton elects to call ambush, an onside kick. Describing the call as gutsy doesn’t give it enough credit but the fact that it was successful cemented Payton’s aggressive nature as a part of who he is. Later in the game, Payton called a two-point conversion attempt to Lance Moore that was also successful. Unfazed by the magnitude of the game, he took 2 calculated chances and came out looking untouchable.

In games during the 2018 season, the King of Juicy Fruit dug into his gut and dialed up a few more risky calls. The three 4th down attempts and conversions against the Baltimore Ravens on a 20 play drive was an exhibition on risking it all. Unfortunately, a fumble derailed a, likely, fourth 4th down conversion which ended the series deep in Ravens territory. More recent aggressive wins took place in the divisional round against the Philadelphia Eagles. Trailing 14-0 in the 2nd quarter, with possession of the ball after a Marshon Lattimore interception of Nick Foles, the Saints were facing a 4th and short in their own territory. Hoping to catch the Eagles off guard, Payton calls a fake punt with Hill taking the direct snap and bowling his way forward for the necessary yardage. Later in the same drive, Brees and the offense remained on the field on 4th and goal and scored on a short Brees TD pass to Thomas.

My goal here, has been to illustrate that the calculated risk that are taken by Payton typically dismiss conventional practice and goes against the grain. His aggression also extends to coach’s challenges. Over the course of his career, he’s challenged 112 rulings and has been successful 46 times since 2006; 12 seasons (suspended all of 2012). By comparison, Bill Belicheck is 48/117 since 2000; that’s 19 full seasons. Andy Reid is 55/116 since 1999; 20 seasons. Payton has challenged an average of 9 plays per season, Belicheck averages 6, and Reid averages 5.8 per season. This shows Payton’s willingness to push back and get things to swing in his team’s favor whenever possible. Payton has a career average of about 15 4th down attempts per season and hovers around 50% on 2 point attempts.

Payton seems to relish the opportunity to unleash some play designs in situations that many coaches would simply do what every one else is doing. That’s something I love and respect about Sean Payton; he’s his own man, win or lose. I’d even go as far as saying his success is almost exclusively due to his affinity for risk. Chew on this, one of greatest risk, in my opinion, was signing an undersized QB coming off a career threatening injury. Look at that guy now!

As always, thanks for reading, Be Cool Who Dats!