The word “great” gets thrown around a lot today, especially in the media. In a world dominated by ‘clicks’, superlatives are used more for their impact than their accuracy. We see it all over the place, not just in sports, but in sports in particular the word ‘great’ gets thrown around a lot. New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton is known for loving the quote “confidence comes from demonstrated ability”, and Sean’s demonstrated ability has put him in a very small group.
There are five coaches in the NFL today who deserve the word “great” put in front of their name, and Sean Payton is one of the two who almost never gets the credit he deserves. Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Pete Carrol, Mike Tomlin, and Sean Payton are the five. Sean and Mike rarely get their due, but this is a Saints’ site so we’re only talking about Sean today.
There are a dozen different ways that I can make this case, and people much smarter than I am can really break down the numbers, the X’s and O’s, and the deeper insights into why I’m right (shoutout to Nick Underhill...if you’re bored...). At the end of the day, it’s far past the time, to give Sean Payton his flowers and I’m going to narrow it down to 3 things:
1: Offensive Mastery/Play-calling
Sean is publicly and deservedly acknowledged as not only one of the best offensive minds in the league, but one of the best the league has ever seen. What makes him different than others in the NFL is Sean remains the primary play-caller and designer for the Saints, while his other contemporaries do not have the same responsibility. That’s not to hold what Sean does above the others to say it makes them worse, but instead highlighting that in addition to managing the team as a whole, Sean also takes full ownership of the offense.
There are other coaches who also take this responsibility, but they don’t have near the track record that Payton has. Outside of just doing it the longest or the most, Payton has done it in a number of different ways, leading his offenses to adapt to their personnel and maximize the units ability to produce.
That offense led under Sean Payton has been a top-5 offense for pretty much his entire tenure in New Orleans, but what really sets him apart in that regard will be talked about more below.
This is the area where Payton gets no credit. His brilliance as an offensive mind and play-caller is a known thing, but his leadership is something that simply does not get talked about enough. Leadership rarely needs to manifest itself when everything is going well - real leadership shows itself when you hit adversity. And Payton has had to face adversity:
- Bountygate (and losing a year of his career, a high draft pick, and destabilizing his team/staff)
- Junior Galette, a team captain and major cog of the defense completely, losing his mind
- Having 3 of the worst defenses in league history (with 2012 and 2015 leading the charge), and even though Sean is part of those, there’s a lot of things that influenced those defenses being so bad he didn’t cause/influence. And more importantly, we’ve recovered from those awful defenses. Sean realized his mistakes, changed the coaching staff and changed the culture years into his tenure....that's hard and very few leaders are comfortable with that.
- The no-call against the Rams (both of them, because the OT push-off from Kyle Rudolph was ridiculous too)
- The NFL intentionally sabotaging its token efforts to put pass interference review in place and the subsequent fallout
- And now, missing multiple games from his hall of fame starting quarterback (in which he is currently undefeated, by the way)
If you look at that list over a 10 year span, you’d think you were talking about a team with the combined record of the Cleveland Browns or the New York Jets, not one of the teams with the most wins over that span and arguably the best team in the league today.
This is the area that really made me want to write this. Sean doesn’t get the credit he deserves for a lot of reasons. His willingness to call out the league, him not being in one of the leagues ‘important’ markets (at least according to the media), his pettiness (oh, how we love him), or the fact that the Saints have had some awful luck and/or incompetence hurt them in big moments in recent years. However, his adaptability is really where you can see Sean’s leadership and his offensive mastery come together.
Great leadership comes from maximizing those you are leading and putting them in a position to succeed. That means that its not about your scheme, your genius, or your credit, it is about giving others the opportunity to best help the team and win. I’m not going to attempt to do a film break down of these games, but let’s for a second remember what Sean has done to change things over the years. The Saints ran a different offense in 2009 than they did from 2011-2014, then 2015-2016 another, then 2017-2019 another, and in 2020, Sean’s ability to adjust how he calls things, how he runs the offense, and who/what he maximizes has been on display more than ever.
We just watched the same coach who made Luke McCown look like an All-Pro against a top defense, who got Teddy Bridgewater a eight-figure contract, who designed some of the best offenses in the history of the league...We just watched that same coach call a whole game of caveman football and dominate. Does personnel help that? Of course it does, and the Denver Broncos’ quarterback situation from the game mattered too. But what you can see over the years is Sean is willing to change things to put his team in the best position to succeed, and that’s the sign of a great leader and a great coach. That willingness to adapt, as well as the ability to do it successfully, sets him apart from all but a few of his peers.
The New Orleans Saints are 9-2. They are 7-0 in the last two years without Drew Brees, and there are so many components to that, but it’s time that Sean Payton gets the credit and the acclaim that he deserves.
Sean Payton should be your coach of the year because he’s had the most adversity, and has shown the most brilliance as a leader, leading the best team in the league.
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