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How good exactly is Saints HC Sean Payton as an offensive playcaller?

Will he go down as one of the greatest offensive minds of all time, or is it simply Who Dat Nation propaganda?

Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

When we think of some of the great head coaches in the game’s history as offensive playcallers Saints Head Coach Sean Payton’s name certainly comes up in regards to recent years of success, but should he be considered one of the greatest offensive minds of all time? It’s easy to look through black and gold colored glasses to immediately say yes but let’s take a look at Payton compared to both himself and to great coaches both past and present.

It can be easy to forget that the Saints aren’t the only team that Payton has called plays for. He was the offensive coordinator under Jim Fassel from 2000 to 2002 and in those three seasons the Giants offense led by Kerry Collins, Tiki Barber, Ron Dayne and a young Jeremy Shockey (and Payton at the helm) New York managed to make the playoffs twice and even to the Super Bowl.

Since 2000 the Giants have has 12 wins or greater in a season twice and one of those years came in Payton’s “rookie” gig as the offensive playcaller. Fun factoid: The backup tight end for the Giants was Dan Campbell who now serves as the tight ends coach for the Saints under Payton. 2000 was also the only season Payton has ever had where his offense didn’t rank in the Top 10, but we’ll talk about that later in the article.

Payton’s success has come from his ability to adapt and grow as a playcaller. Take a look at these two plays. One is from the 2000 New York Giants playbook and the other from the 2011 Saints. Both plays work on the Four Verticals concept, but you can see slight changes in how it’s deployed. The spacing of the receivers is different, the alert calls are changed slightly and even the positioning of the “X-Factors”.

2011 Saints

So, while one play is Flank RT YD 22 Trip Seam and one is Gun Empty RT 52 All Go Special H Jerk the core of the plays are the same. They both are using Four Verticals to attack a defense, but as Payton has grown as a playcaller so has his playbook. A more recent example of an alteration to this play would be “X-Cross” where instead of Michael Thomas running the deep go he would cut underneath in a crossing pattern.

This continued success whether with the Giants or the Saints has helped him accrue one of the highest win totals amongst active coaches with their current teams. In fact, Payton has the third highest win total (131) behind Bill Belichick (237) and Mike Tomlin (133).

While it might be a bit early to put in an order for Payton’s bust in Canton the resume is already pretty glowing. He is a Super Bowl champion, a winner of the AP Coach of the Year award, and just might be the most successful offensive mind in NFL history. Let’s start with what coaches in the Hall of Fame currently look like.

Of the twenty-five head coaches currently in the NFL Hall of Fame (including Bill Cower and Jimmy Johnson who are part of the 2020 class) Payton already has more wins than twelve of them. Johnson, while having two Super Bowl titles to his name, only won eighty games and has a lower (55.6% vs 63%) win percentage than Payton. Mark Levy took his team to four Super Bowls (1990-1993 Buffalo Bills) which is incredibly impressive, but he too has a lower win percentage than Payton (56.1%). Keep in mind, we’re comparing Payton to Hall of Fame coaches. This doesn’t diminish what others have accomplished.

What truly sets Payton apart from most of his peers is his consistent success as an offensive play caller. Below is a table showing some of the top offensive minds of all time as well as more recent names like Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and Sean McVay.

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Coach Name Years as OC/HC # of Top 5 O # of Top 5 Scoring % of years as Top 5 # of Top 10 O # of Top 10 Scoring % of years as Top 10 Wins as HC Losses as HC W/L % Playoff Record as HC Superbowl Wins Teams Hall of Fame
Coach Name Years as OC/HC # of Top 5 O # of Top 5 Scoring % of years as Top 5 # of Top 10 O # of Top 10 Scoring % of years as Top 10 Wins as HC Losses as HC W/L % Playoff Record as HC Superbowl Wins Teams Hall of Fame
Vince Lombardi - 1954-1967, 1969 15 5 9 60% 14 15 100% 96 34 73.8%(6 Ties) 9-1 2(+5x NFL Champs) NYG/GB/WAS Yes
Sean Payton - 00-11,13-19 16 10 7 62.50% 15 11 93.75% 131 77 63% 8-7 1 NY, NOLA
Tom Landry - 1960-1988 29 17 12 58.6%% 25 21 86.20% 250 162 60.7%(6 Ties) 20-16 2 DAL Yes
Don Coryell 1973-1986 14 10 5 71.40% 12 10 85.70% 111 83 57.2%(1 Tie) 3-6 0 SDG/STL
Bill Walsh - 1976, 1979-1988 11 7 4 63.60% 8 8 72.70% 92 59 60.9%(1Tie) 10-4 3 SDG/SF Yes
Sean McVay - 2014-2019 6 2 2 33% 4 3 66%% 33 15 68.8%% 2-2 0 WAS/LAR
Joe Gibbs - 1978-1992, 2004-2007 19 8 8 42.10% 12 11 63.10% 154 94 62.10% 17-7 3 TAM/SDG/WAS Yes
Mike Shanahan 1985-2013 27 14 9 51.80% 17 17 62.90% 170 138 55.20% 8-6 2 DEN/LAR/SF/WAS
Kyle Shanahan - 2008-2019 12 5 3 41.60% 7 4 58.30% 23 25 47.90% 2-1 0 ATL/SF/WAS/CLE/HOUS
Mike Martz 1999-2011 12 3 4 25% 6 4 50% 53 32 62.40% 3-4 1 (as OC) STL/CHI/DET/SF
Frank Reich 6 0 2 33% 3 2 50% 17 15 53.1%% 1-1 0 SDG/PHI/IND
Andy Reid - 1999-2019 21 5 5 23.80% 10 13 47.60% 207 128 61.80% 15-14 1 PHI/KS
Dick Vermeil - 1976-1982, 1997-2005 15 6 5 40% 7 7 46.60% 120 109 52.40% 6-5 1 LAR/KS
Jon Gruden - 1995-2008, 2018-2019 16 3 2 18.75% 6 4 37.50% 106 102 51% 5-4 1 TAM/LAR/PHI
Doug Pederson 7 0 1 0% 1 3 14.28%% 38 26 59.40% 4-2 1 KAN/PHI
Tom Flores - 1979-1994 12 0 2 0% 0 5 0% 97 87 52.70% 8-3 2 LAR/SEA
Comparing Sean Payton to past & present top offensive minds Deuce Windham

All of these coaches have made names for themselves, which makes where Payton falls amongst them all the more impressive. Of the sixteen coaches listed, Payton is 3rd on the list percentage of seasons his team has finished as a Top 5 offense. The only names who have a higher percentage at this stage are Don Cryell (who needs to be in the Hall of Fame like yesterday) and Bill Walsh.

But, let’s get to the most obvious display of Payton’s greatness: the consistency he’s had forming a Top 10 offense. His lone season outside of the Top 10 came in 2000 as a then rookie offensive coordinator and that team finished as the 13th overall offense. Oh, and they went to the Super Bowl (losing to the Ravens).

From 2001 until now we’ve seen year after year of a Top 10 offense. Almost 94% of his seasons have ended with whatever team Payton is with as one of the best in the league. If there is anything Payton lacks it’s more Super Bowl championships, but he’s called the offense in two of them and won it in 2009.

An argument against Payton’s success that has been brought up before was that he’s been paired with Drew Brees, so of course his success is guaranteed. A quick counter to that is that Payton took a Collins led Giants team to top 10 status twice. Also, should we discount Bellichick’s greatest because he had Tom Brady? What about Walsh with Joe Montana? Shanahan with John Elway?

From 2003 until 2005 Payton worked as the “Assistant Head Coach” under Bill Parcells and was never the full time guy calling the shots, but he still is remembered by many as a great mind who was never afraid to push Parcells to take shots and work the field.

It’s easy to lose sight of exactly how great Payton has been when you’ve spent so much time watching him that you forget exactly how good things are. In the franchise history of the Saints they’ve been a Top 5 offense thirteen times. Ten of those are under Payton (2012 used Payton’s system, but he wasn’t actually there to coach it).

Since their inception the Saints have had thirteen seasons with 10 or more wins. Eight of those were under Payton. They’ve had four seasons with 13 or more wins. All four came under the direction and leadership of Payton. Payton has more 10 win seasons under his belt than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise does all time (7) as well as the Carolina Panthers.

Payton has the same number of 13 win seasons as the rest of the NFC South has in their combined histories. Over 126 total season the Panthers, Bucs and Falcons have managed to amass just three 13 or more win seasons collectively.

While the perception of inconsistency with the running game has been a pain point for Who Dat Nation when it comes to Payton’s playcalling, maybe it was all part of a greater design. Payton’s rushing attack has finished 28th in the league 3 times. The only logical explanation is that Payton knew he could be the top offensive mind in NFL history while simultaneously taking a dig at the Falcons.

It certainly would fit Payton’s M.O.

Through almost two decades we’ve been able to watch Payton dominate the league like few before him. With all of these numbers in mind, and many more not mentioned, maybe it’s not too soon to start preparing that bust of Payton for Canton. Maybe he needs a couple more seasons of greatness to solidify his stay in a potential new home, and with the Saints having Payton under contract until 2023 there’s still plenty of opportunities.