Sean Payton and Saints Face the Ultimate Challenge Against All Odds

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When the New Orleans Saints announced that they had re-signed Sean Payton to a five year contract extension last Sunday, they did so mainly because the 55-year old is not only just the all-time winningest head coach in team history, but he is also regarded as one of the League’s very best head coaches, period.

Little did the organization realize that just a few short hours later both they and Payton would endure the unthinkable: the loss of 19th year veteran QB and future NFL Hall of Famer Drew Brees. Brees suffered a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand, an injury that required surgery yesterday afternoon and is expected to keep the 40-year old living legend out of the starting line-up for at least the next 6-to-8 weeks.

As a direct result, the belief among respected  analysts and observers League-wide is that Payton will have to face what they would consider to be the greatest challenge of his entire 31-year year coaching career: somehow keeping the Black and Gold competitive from week-to-week and remaining in Playoff contention until Brees returns to action.


1988-89  Offensive Assistant, San Diego State 

1990-91  Running Backs & Wide Receivers coach, Indiana State

1992-94  Running Backs coach, San Diego State (2nd stint)

1994-95  Offensive Coordinator, Miami (Ohio)

1996  Quarterbacks Coach,  University of Illinois 

1997-98  Quarterbacks Coach, Philadelphia Eagles (under Andy Reid)

1999-2002 Quarterbacks Coach & Offensive Coordinator, New York Giants (under Jim Fassel)

2003-05  Assistant Head Coach & Quarterbacks Coach, Dallas Cowboys (under Bill Parcells)

2006-Current  Head Coach, New Orleans Saints (127 Wins, 80 Losses in his 13th Season)

Brees underwent successful surgery yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles, performed by nationally-renowned hand specialist Dr. Steven Shin. The Saints and Payton have said that there is no set timetable at the moment for Brees’ return, and that he will be evaluated from week-to-week. However, the team’s starting quarterback has only missed one game in the psst 13 years, because of an injury.

It’s believed that Brees will miss at least six games, beginning with this Sunday’s road game at Seattle against the Seahawks. His eventual return to action is projected to occur sometime in early November, possibly as soon as the game following their Bye Week in Week #10 at home against the division rival Falcons.

Until then, Payton and the Saints will face what could be the ultimate challenge of his career and the franchise’s 52-year history: trying to win as many games possible without the team’s greatest player ever — which undoubtedly will be the ultimate challenge of the Payton-Brees Era and against the longest of odds, at that.

However, if there’s anyone that can pull it off it’s the unflappable Payton, an individual who’s well-known to never back down in the face of adversity.

It’s the main reason why some observers League-wide suggested that the Saints need to do everything within their power as an organization to play to their other team strengths for as long as Brees remains out of the lineup.

That will begin with Sunday’s contest at Seattle, where Payton is expected to continue to roll with back-up #2 QB Teddy Bridgewater, who played for three plus quarters filling in for Brees after he got injured, in the disappointing 27-9 loss against the Rams last Sunday. Payton was rather coy yesterday, however, when asked about who will start in Brees’ absence against the Seahawks, and hinted (or at least wants everyone to think) that he might instead insert #3 QB Taysom Hill as the starter.

“We’ll coach this game with two quarterbacks, then we’ll see where we’re at with the right plan relative to what those guys are going to be doing,” Payton said, adding that he wouldn’t specifically name one or the other as his starter for Sunday’s game. The idea is to keep Seattle (and every other opponent in the upcoming weeks ahead that they’ll face while Brees is out) guessing who the starter will actually be up until opening kick-off.

Although a large segment of Who Dat fans would like nothing better than to see Hill get a shot at running the team’s offense, it’s believed that Payton’s comments yesterday were nothing more than “gamesmanship” on his part, given his notable reputation in the past to play mind games with the opposition.

The 26-year-old Bridgewater was ineffective against Los Angeles; he finished 17-for-30 for 165 yards with zero touchdowns and appeared to struggle with completing throws down the field. As a direct result, the Saints offense posted a meager 244 yards via the air — the 2nd-worst passing total for New Orleans since 2013.

In total fairness, however, Bridgewater had to go into the game ‘ice-cold’ without the privilege of preparation, and for all intent and purposes was figuratively “thrown to the wolves”.

Nevertheless, now with nearly a full week for Payton to modify the offensive scheme to better fit Bridgewater’s strengths as a passer, there’s a good chance that the team fans will see this Sunday and for the next several games, will have a bit of a different philosophy that will focus heavily on the protection schemes along the offensive line and the increased utilization of superstar play-makers Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara.

“If you watch the tape closely from last week, you see there’s some tough situations that I think would have been difficult for any one of our guys playing,” Payton said in regard to Bridgewater. “So he’ll be ready to go. He’s a guy that’s won before. And the most important thing is all the other pieces around him.”

Undoubtedly, the Saints’ next several opponents will attempt to make life difficult for the less-experienced Bridgewater, in spite of his having learned the Saints offensive playbook for the past 13-plus months under Payton and Brees’ mentor-ship, after they acquired him last summer during mid-August of 2018.

One would imagine that an offensive genius like Payton will resort to calling the types of plays that are meant to keep an opposing defense honest; which means that no one should be surprised to see an increase in “gadget plays” such as RB screens, end-arounds, sweeps, and maybe even a “flea flicker” or two.

That’s specifically where the previously-mentioned Taysom Hill could become heavily involved in the game plan, not necessarily at QB but as a runner or receiver in those types of plays which are designed to use Hill’s dynamic athleticism to their advantage.

Bottom line: if you thought the Saints were going to play it “close to the vest” while Brees is out recovering from surgery, you’re going to be in for one helluva shock.

Photo by Wyatt Vaughn, JRNOLA

Regardless of whoever starts at QB, Payton has a notable reputation in the past of helping QB’s that weren’t expected to be all that successful, achieve unparalleled heights at the position.

Payton’s notable track record at developing QB’s dating back to his days in the late 1990’s as the offensive coordinator with the New York Giants under then-head coach Jim Fassel, and it would be unwise for any of  Bridgewater or Hill’s doubters to dismiss the possibility that he can do it again with either one (or both) of them.

If ever there was a prime example of Payton’s ability to successfully guide young QB’s to NFL stardom, it would be what he did with then-Giants starting QB Kerry Collins (who ironically once upon a time was the Saints starting QB under then Saints head coach Mike Ditka) in the 2000 NFL regular season.

Collins as older Who Dat fans might recall, started the 1998 season as the starting quarterback for the then-still-new NFL expansion team the Carolina Panthers, who originally selected Collins from Penn State with the 5th overall pick in the 1st Round of the 1995 NFL Draft.

After an (0–4) start to Carolina’s 3rd-ever year of existence, Collins walked into then-Panthers head coach Dom Capers‘ office and, as Collins would later refer to it in an interview, “told Coach Capers my heart’s not in it, I’m not happy, and I don’t feel like I can play right now.”

He asked to be traded, but was instead placed on waivers by Carolina and subsequently signed with Ditka and the Saints to finish the season with seven more starts, but only two wins (the Saints would finish at 6-10 that year).

Collins was released by the Saints and then signed with the Giants in the 1999 off-season, where Sean Payton had just been named as the team’s QB coach under Fassel. Collins started the 1999 season as the Giants’ second-string quarterback behind Kent Graham, but claimed the starting job in Week 11 as Graham struggled with a 5–4 record.

In the following 2000 season, Payton was promoted by Fassel as the Giants offensive coordinator; and with Payton guiding him, Collins led the Giants to Super Bowl XXXV, where they eventually lost to the Baltimore Ravens.

Essentially, Payton “restored” Collins’ belief and faith in himself that he could be a successful player at the game’s highest level — something that observers believe he also can do with Bridgewater or Taysom Hill if he so chooses.

The great job that he did with getting Collins’ career “back on track”, was (and still is) a testament to Payton’s notable ability to develop QB’s — which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given that Payton himself was once a quarterback (at Eastern Illinois University in college and then in the NFL as a back-up briefly with the Chicago Bears during the 1987 Season).

After the coaching stint with the Giants, Payton then moved on to Dallas; where he was named assistant head coach and  quarterbacks coach in 2003 by then-Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells, and helped QB’s Quincy CarterVinny Testaverde, and Drew Bledsoe all to 3,000-yard seasons.

But it was during the 2005 Season after being promoted by Parcells to assistant head coach / passing game coordinator, where the next QB that he would eventually help guide to stardom became one of his prized pupils: an undrafted rookie free agent QB from Payton’s own alma mater (the previously-mentioned Eastern Illinois University) by the name of Tony Romo.

Despite intriguing some scouts, Romo went undrafted in the 2003 NFL Draft. Throughout the draft, Romo was assured by Payton himself personally of the Cowboys’ interest (Romo was also intensely pursued by former Denver Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan), and shortly afterwards was signed as an undrafted rookie by the Cowboys.

Romo entered the 2003 training camp third on the Cowboys’ depth chart behind Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson, and for the next few seasons (2004 and 2005) he served primarily as the holder for placekicks. But it was during that 2005 season — Payton’s last season with the Cowboys before accepting the job as the new Saints head coach — when his next QB “pupil” in Romo was elevated by Parcells to the #2 QB spot behind Bledsoe.

Unfortunately for Payton, he never actually got to coach Romo in an actual regular season game; although his tutelage of the young QB would eventually lead him to become one of the greatest QB’s in the Cowboys’ entire storied history; where he was the starting QB for an entire decade and was selected to 4 Pro Bowls.

In fact, right after Payton had been hired by the Saints in the 2006 off-season, he offered a 3rd round draft pick for Romo, but Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones refused, asking for no less than a 2nd round draft pick.

“When the topic came up, it was actually Bill (Parcells) who told me to have a warm glass of milk and take a nap on the couch. It was never seriously discussed”, Payton recalled in a story on Romo by ESPN.

As one of his very first moves ever as the new head coach of the Saints, Payton would then go on to sign former San Diego Chargers starting QB Drew Brees in 2006 NFL Free Agency, and the rest as they say, is NFL history.

Which brings us back to the present day and this Sunday’s looming contest for Payton and company up in the Pacific Northwest at Seattle, against the NFC rival Seahawks.

The Saints have a (1-1) win-loss record currently, and in spite of being the “underdog” this coming Sunday and then again next week when they come home to face the undefeated (2-0) Dallas Cowboys; it’s important to realize that their season isn’t over by any means.

If the Saints are fortunate and Brees’ healing and rehab goes as hoped, New Orleans will only need to get through a six-week period of the regular season before they’re able to get Brees back under center — a stretch of games that will be absolutely critical for the team’s playoff hopes.

After the games against the Seahawks and then the Cowboys next week, the Saints will then host their division rivals the Buccaneers; before they eventually go back on the road to face the Jaguars and Bears in back-to-back weeks. New Orleans will then return home to face the Cardinals before their Week #9 Bye Week.

If the Saints can finish with a “break-even” (3-3) win-loss record in those six games, it will give them a LEGITIMATE shot at contending in what analysts consider to be a “weak” but very wide-open NFC South Division this year.

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

While some observers might think that New Orleans isn’t capable of pulling it off, the one key thing to keep in mind is that the Saints themselves believe that they can.

And it’s all thanks in part to the man who has been running the show for the past 13 years, and who has brought the Saints franchise to the pinnacle of ultimate success (including their one and only World Championship victory in Super Bowl XLIV (44) ten years ago) once before.

But beginning in three more days from now up in Seattle, Payton and the Saints will now face their ultimate challenge and against all odds — but only an absolute fool would dare to bet against them….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium. He is the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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