By Dan Pompei
In the Saints' practice facility last year, a banner was hung with a photo of the banished coach and the words "DO YOUR JOB." It was a cute motivational ploy. But it could not dial up the brilliant play at the game-defining moment. It could not strike the perfect chord in a pregame speech. It could not hire the ideal defensive coordinator. And it could not give a group of men direction and purpose.
You want to know why the Saints went from 13-3 in 2011, to 7-9 in 2012, to 5-0 in 2013? In 2012 they had a banner. Before and after, they had a visionary.
In his time away from the game, Sean Payton studied the NFL. He served as offensive coordinator for his son Connor's sixth grade football team, trying to get those Liberty Christian Warriors to stop "looking at dandelions and picking their boogers," he said at the time. He sought the counsel of his mentor Bill Parcells. He got himself in the best shape of his life.
Now, Payton is seeing more clearly than ever. After serving a one-year suspension as a result of the Bountygate scandal, Payton returned to the Saints last offseason with renewed focus, energy and drive. So what was intended to be a punishment for Payton and the Saints actually might end up being a punishment for 31 other teams.
One man's impact on an organization rarely has been so evident. "I've been around long enough to recognize what a special head coach he is," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said. "But sometimes you can take things for granted. When someone is missing and you're not successful, clearly the things he brought to the table were a large part of your success."
Much of what Payton graces his team with is intangible, like inspiration and love of competition. This is not the type of coach who spends his days pushing buttons on a graphing calculator in a darkened room and then distributes spreadsheets that can't be understood without an engineering Ph.D.
"He's our leader, he's our general," Saints center Brian De La Puente said. "At the pivotal point in the game, whatever he is calling, you know it's the right call."
Said linebacker Martez Wilson, "All the guys respect him and love him as a coach. We play hard for him."
Saints inside linebacker Curtis Lofton talks about how the Saints feel a heightened sense of accountability with the man back in the building. He said Payton does not hesitate to call out players who are not practicing, preparing or performing the way he thinks they should. Payton also is a master at stirring competitive juices by issuing challenges, pitting offense against defense, player against player. "He loves to talk crap to our defense," Lofton said. "Back and forth, back and forth."
This version of the Saints no longer has a problem with wandering minds. "Last year there was so much discussion and energy and anger put into off-the-field things," Loomis said. "That didn't allow us as an organization to focus on preparation and readiness like we should have. One of Sean's great strengths is getting our team and organization focused on the task at hand."
His message always seems to be on point. Listen to him talk to the team from his old high school here and then see if you don't want to run out of the tunnel and look for someone to hit. When Payton was preparing the Saints for a trip to Chicago last week, the coach mentioned "maybe 50 times" that his teams were winless at Soldier Field, according to right tackle Zach Strief. Not anymore.
One of Payton's recurring themes this year has been to get his men to understand the value of week-to-week flexibility in terms of approaching each opponent. They had to slug it out to beat the Bucs. Then, they lit up the scoreboards against the Cardinals and Dolphins. And in Chicago, they uncharacteristically played take-what-you-give-me offense, going the slow way to the end zone.
Payton's words never have been more well received, in part because he is talking to a lot of fresh ears. In the offseason, he had equipment men tape names on the back of players' helmets to help him remember who was who. Even now, 26 of the 53 players in his locker room never have been coached by him before. A lot can happen in one year.
The hard body of the head coach is proof. Instead of spending more time on his couch during his exile, Payton enlisted in CrossFit. He was so pleased with the results his team now is using many of the same concepts in their conditioning program.
Perhaps Payton's most significant move was finding a new way of doing it on defense. Now, everyone understands why Rob Ryan knew he could get a job in five minutes.
It was puzzling to some the job would be in New Orleans, where Payton and Loomis were trying to sweep away the fallout from a defensive coordinator who was not in tune with the new way of thinking in the NFL. Ryan, like Gregg Williams, had a reputation as a bit of a defensive madman. With his shoulder-length hair, risky blitzes and bold statements, Ryan liked to push the limit. He and Williams are apples from the same tree, with Williams having coached under Rob's father, Buddy.
But Ryan never has been accused of offering his players financial incentives, and thus far he has been the perfect man to coordinate this defense. Ryan has not run the type of defense his résumé said he would, however. Following Payton's lead, he has run a varied scheme that has been highly unpredictable and unconventional.
In addition to their base 3-4, the Saints have played a large percentage of 4-2-5, with three safeties on the field. Kenny Vaccaro usually is one of those safeties, but not always. He says he has played seven positions -- all over the back seven. He isn't the only moving piece in Ryan's defense. Lofton, for instance, has taken a number of snaps at defensive end.
This is the most complex defense Lofton, a six-year NFL vet, has played. "There is so much learning that goes into each week," he said. "So many different packages, switching people around, playing different positions. We run multiple fronts. Everyone plays on defense. We are disguising our coverages."
Everyone is confused by it except the Saints. After allowing the most yards in NFL history one season ago, the Saints rank 11th in yards per game allowed and fourth in points per game allowed. And that's after losing four projected defensive starters and a nickel cornerback for the season.
This is a defense, and a team, that believes in itself again, and that can make up for a lot of things. "We knew that wasn't us last year," Lofton said.
They became the Saints again on January 22. That's the day Sean Payton came back to work.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.