WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — I’ve noticed, and I know others have too. Sean Payton, now with a decade under his belt as Saints coach, has looked more relaxed through the first seven months of 2016.
And so I asked him, after a competitive Saturday practice, if there’s anything to it.
“There are just certain things that you begin to focus on a little more clearly, and the others you have less control over, you don’t let those derail from working towards the main goal,” Payton told me. “It’s hard to evaluate that. Obviously, the consistency we’ve had from our ownership to general manager to head coach, to having the same quarterback throughout that timeframe, that’s something you appreciate.
“I’m excited about this team.”
That team will need a bit of introduction.
Only Drew Brees, Zach Strief and Thomas Morstead remain from the 2009 champions, the product of turning the team-building page over the last three offseasons. On a snaps-played basis, the Saints relied on rookies on defense in 2015 more than any other team. And at least four 2016 draft picks—defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins, wide receiver Mike Thomas, safety Vonn Bell and running back Daniel Lasco—figure to play early this year.
As Payton sees it, the burgeoning new core correlates to where the Saints were a decade ago, when he first arrived. And he saw that even when his future was very publicly in question as last season wound down. So it makes sense that, with a team that he again believes is ascending and his own situation settled (he signed a five-year deal in January), he’d look more content.
In a lot of ways, for Payton and the Saints, this feels like the start of a new era.
“The best way to put it is he has a plan,” Drew Brees said after practice. “He has a plan for, even going back to a year ago, how we’re gonna build this team back to being all about character and toughness. … I don’t wanna call it relaxed, I don’t wanna call it content. It’s purposeful.”
As a result, Brees says he sees a Payton who can forecast things coming before they happen, and knows how to push the buttons accordingly, which goes to the efficiency Payton cited.
And Brees didn’t have to dig too deep to come up with an anecdote to illustrate it. A shining example had just played out a couple hours earlier on the practice field.
“He knew everyone was gonna come out today and be sluggish to start because we’ve had a couple hard days in a row, it’s the dog days,” Brees said. “He knew ahead of time, ‘I’m gonna have to jump some guys’ asses early on to get guys going,’ because everyone was gonna come out here feeling sorry for themselves. Sure enough, that’s what happened. And then we ended up having a good practice.”
And that explains why, when you come here and see it, all the talk about Payton bolting feels like it happened about 100 years ago.
Payton, of course, was very aware of the rumors. He was asked about them plenty. But seven months later, as he talks about the decision to do a new deal in New Orleans, it doesn’t sound like it was an excruciating one for him to make.
“I understand how that began to build steam, and yet [GM] Mickey [Loomis] and I have a great relationship,” he said. “That took basically a day-and-a-half of us sitting down and outlining the next five years and what our goals are and where we see this team going.”
Payton is quick to agree that it’s good to have shed all the speculation that’s followed him the last couple years. But his decision wasn’t about that. It came down to that feeling he cited earlier, one that only his experience could give him. Now, more so than ever, he knows what’s important to him and what’s not. And when evaluating his own situation, he was already in a place that gave him what he felt he needed.
“There are a lot of things that are important to me,” Payton said. “Our structure, with this organization, I don’t ever want to take it for granted. That’s important, because it’s not that way throughout the league, with every team. Secondly, my family. My son is a sophomore in high school, plays football, and I’m able to get over and see him play, it’s an hour-and-10-minute flight.
“I don’t take that for granted. He was just here for a week of camp, and we go to Houston [next week], and I’ll get back one night to see him in a scrimmage. That’s important. The relationships in this building, the coaching staff and the players that have been here for a while, that’s important.”
What’s left for Payton now is to get New Orleans back in the playoffs, with the dissembling of the old foundation now complete and the building of the new foundation underway in earnest.
Like most coaches, Payton isn’t a big fan of the word “content,” in the same kind of way he wouldn’t use “rebuild” to describe the process the Saints have gone through the last couple years. He still wants to drive as hard as ever, and considers himself competitive as ever.
But here’s where you can, at least, get a glimpse into the way he feels about his spot in the NFL and as a coach now: Ask him if he sees this as his last job.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “It’s always hard to look out past things, but shoot, I’m 52, I like where I live, I like the setup we have as an organization. And I know it’s a little bit unusual, maybe not the norm, but I would never pay attention [to] what others do, I look strictly at my job and our team. And you answer the question: Do we have an opportunity to win? Do we have an opportunity to impact others, and be involved in the process and be part of the process? All of those things are great things, and great responsibilities as a head coach, and those exist here and I don’t know that they exist at every one of those other jobs.”
So in short, the answer to the question everyone asked of Payton last year now has a simple answer: He has the job he wants. And if he, and the Saints, are right about the young core they’ve built, things should just get better from here.
FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT ABOUT SAINTS CAMP
1. There’s peace here. And that’s a change. Those inside the building now acknowledge that the locker room went sideways a couple years ago. And independent of one another, Payton and Brees pointed out that a challenge for those who have been around long-term is starting to realize that a lot of the core values preached back before they won a championship had been taken for granted, and needed to be restated. Rest assured, they have been. I can let Brees take it from here:
“If we went back to 2006, Sean got here that first year, it was really about establishing that foundation. ‘Here’s how we do things, and this is what we’re teaching, this is what the expectation level is,’ he told me. “Those first four years, from  to ’09, you were building that. And that carried us for a while, because a lot of the leaders on our team, the guys that were playing key roles for us, had been part of that building of the foundation. After ’13, a lot of those guys were gone, most of them, almost all of them. So I think we took for granted [that] when we began to talk about something, guys knew what we were talking about. And they didn’t. … You don’t want to call it a rebuild, I don’t like the term rebuild. But you do have to reestablish the foundation. So, O.K., for those who weren’t here from ’06-09, this is what we did, this is how we built it, this was the expectation level, and this is what’s required of you as a New Orleans Saint. We had to communicate that all over again. So now, I feel like we’re in that period where that foundation is built. Now, we can grow.”
Brees says he sees it in how young players are now able to translate it to rookies, a sign that the message has sunk in. “By the time you roll around to the season, the team needs to be in control of the team,” Brees said. “And unfortunately, we weren’t in a good place there in ’14 and into ’15.” Now, he thinks they are.
2. This has been a tough camp. Part of reestablishing what the Payton Era Saints were built on means going back to his Parcellsian roots, and almost creating a redux of the first camp he held as a head coach 10 years ago back in Jackson, Mississippi. So New Orleans has held longer practices, and has gone live more than in the recent past, which is part of the balance Payton’s trying to strike between continuing to evolve and staying true to his principles. “I think there are certain things that transcend time, the discipline, the structure, that hopefully are always a trademark of what we do,” he says. “And yet, the game’s changed, how the game is called, the penalties, what offenses are doing now, what defenses are doing now compared to five, eight, 10 years ago. Staying ahead of that, staying on top of that is important.”
As for what he’s seen in making things a little harder on his players, Payton didn’t mince words: “This is a tough group.”
3. Brees is healthy. The practice I witnessed was a four-interception mess for Brees, and he was hard on himself afterwards. Maybe part of that is because it was a blip in what’s been a pretty solid start to 2016. I’d heard before coming here that the quarterback’s offseason was as clean as any in his recent past, and he agreed when I asked him about it. “I know my training regimen from late June and July, it was as good a routine and as good a four weeks as I’ve had over the last five years,” he said. Now, the elephant in the room concerns Brees’ contract situation, since his deal is up after 2016 and it’d cost the Saints $43.2 million to tag him in 2017. But he swears he’s not concerned with that now. “I’m really not. I got one year left. Sure, I’d love to have something done prior to the season, but it’s not my focus right now. I know if I take care of business here, all that stuff takes care of itself.” We’ll have more on Brees coming in my Thursday Notes.
4. The Saints are quietly confident that the defense will improve. Part of this is the belief inside the building in Dennis Allen. Part of it is the young talent, especially apparent at corner. We’ll see if any of the guys there evolve into stars, but New Orleans feels like, for now, it can say the depth there is better than it has been in recent memory. The four interceptions by Brees came on a day when the Saints were missing all four projected starters in their secondary (corners Delvin Breaux and Keenan Lewis, safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro). Behind Breaux and Lewis, sophs P.J. Williams and Damian Swann, and undrafted rookies De’Vante Harris and Ken Crawley have been strong in camp, and figure to make the competition for playing time fierce. Add that to rookies Rankins and Bell flashing early, and onboarding of vets like Nick Fairley and James Laurinaitis, and you can see why a day like Saturday—when the defense got the better of the offense—could be seen as more than just a bad one for Brees and Co.
5. You should draft Mike Thomas on your fantasy team. And I’m not just saying this because of where he went to school (Ohio State, which happens to be my school). Thomas has been the talk of camp, and should be an immediate contributor to an offense that loses the big-receiver presence it had for a decade in Marques Colston. Ohio State’s coaches insisted to NFL teams that Thomas was a first-round talent, a player who was a force in college yet still had a lot of room to grow. The Saints listened. I’ll bet they reap the benefits quickly.
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