Saints players and staff prepare for the 2018 NFL Pro Bowl during NFC practice on Wednesday, Jan. 24.
Orlando – New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton forged a friendship with Patriots Coach Bill Belichick at the Pro Bowl, following the 2006 season.
That's the only other time Payton and his staff have coached the NFC until this year. And while another similarly lasting bond might not be forged this year, there still are ties to be developed and treasured, and a greater appreciation to be gained, for Payton, his staff and the seven Saints players who will represent the NFC on Sunday in the Pro Bowl.
"I think when you're around them, you really get a good feel for their personalities," Payton said Wednesday, following practice at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. "You recognize not only their skill set, but man, these guys, it's important to them.
"You sit back there and you talk to (Seattle safety) Earl Thomas and he's looking at formations already. They're just wired in a way that's special. It's rare – (Arizona cornerback) Patrick Peterson, all of them. You just get around some of these athletes and you understand it's not just their physical ability, but it's their drive and their competitive nature and all those things that end up making them great.
"Just spending time with guys that you've only seen from afar. I've never had a chance to talk with (Carolina linebacker) Thomas Davis, and to sit here and visit with him a little bit and get to know him. A lot of guys from our division. (Falcons linebacker) Deion Jones, we've got two linebackers from LSU, one's from Tampa (Kwon Alexander). You just spend time with guys that you've only competed against."
All have the commonality of playing for teams that did not advance to play in Super Bowl LII. But, too, there's the commonality of them being among the best of the best at their respective positions.
The Pro Bowl serves as a palatable alternative for them, and an opportunity to look back on myriad positives for several of them.
"It's always tough when you're not playing in that final game," Payton said. "I felt like we had a lot of young players contribute, we had a lot of guys get nicked up that hopefully we get back healthy, (and) then the offseason will be important with regards to the decisions."
Before that, though, there's a gameplan to construct. Offensively, especially, Payton will benefit from having five Saints working with that unit – quarterback Drew Brees, running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, receiver Michael Thomas and right guard Larry Warford.
Too, Payton said, there are some universal language themes throughout the NFL.
"We've done this one other time and there's really a couple of strains of language in our league," he said. "In a very short period of time, guys learn how to call offensive plays. You start with a simple right and left with your strength call, and your running plays – be it, they're reduced – are still pretty easy. But that's what we're doing. We're going to practice and make sure we have it squared away before Sunday."
That, and to make sure the players have a pleasant experience while doing so.
"These guys are great athletes and I think you put a plan together – hopefully, universally, from a system-wise that they can understand quickly," Payton said. "You get out here, you get your work in and then make sure guys enjoy themselves. I think it's important for a lot of these new and first-couple-of-year guys to meet some of these guys that have been in 10, 11, 12 Pro Bowls. It's a good experience for them."
Actually, it's good for those 10-, 11- and 12-year Pro Bowlers, too. For them, it's a chance to establish new friendships and to catch up on old ones.
"This is great," said Brees, who is making his franchise-record 10th Pro Bowl appearance. "It's great to be around a young guy like (Rams quarterback) Jared Goff, who had a phenomenal season. (Seahawks quarterback) Russell Wilson, who I've played in a Pro Bowl with before, but to be with him again. (Cowboys tight end) Jason Witten, I think we've been in about 10 of these together. It feels like he's in it every year. It's just great to be a part of it and be around these guys."
There also is the off-the-field aspect that appeals to players and coaches.
For Brees, that means an opportunity to have his sons, Bowen and Baylen, serve as ball boys for the NFC.
"This is what it's all about," he said. "You never know when you'll have a chance to come back and be a part of something like this. So it's cool to have them involved in that."
"It's a plus for the families," Payton said. "All of these guys have brought friends and family that have been with them for the better part of their career. So it's a chance to enjoy some good weather.
"And then out here, I think there's an element of, hey, let's get our work done and let's make sure we're ready to play, but let's have some fun doing it. And I think the players enjoy getting to know each other as well."