Get a look at the unique bond between New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and legendary quarterback Drew Brees throughout their years in New Orleans.
"It goes back to when he first sat me down before I ever signed with the Saints, and he started drawing up plays on the board that was a combination of his West Coast offensive background and philosophy, and the things that I did well with the San Diego Chargers," Brees said.
"I remember looking at him saying, 'Oh, you guys run these concepts as well?' And he said, 'No, but I know that you ran these and you ran them very well, and we're going to build this offense around you and your strengths.'
"Right away, I realized that that was such a unique approach and maybe so much different than what I expected, especially from a first-time head coach, coming into a really tough situation with high expectations."
What Brees knew, in 2006, was that Payton would be the perfect coach for him. And as usual, the quarterback was correct – the Payton-Brees combination produced 142 victories, second-most in NFL history for a coach-quarterback combination, trailing the 219 posted by New England’s Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Payton stepped away from coaching on Tuesday, Jan. 25, after 16 seasons with the Saints and a 15-year coaching record of 152-89 in the regular season, with a 9-8 postseason record and Super Bowl XLIV victory on his resume.
"It's very significant," Brees said of the success. "It's very significant. Because it's so rare, especially in this day and age, different than maybe what you would say about the '60s, '70s, '80s where we can reference many of these organizations that built these dynasties or just this consistency in performance. The Steelers with Chuck Noll, the Cowboys with Tom Landry, the Dolphins with Don Shula, the 49ers with Bill Walsh. All these incredible coaches and these eras of football that took place with some of these organizations and the quarterbacks that were a part of that.
"I know Brady and Belichick are (No.) 1, and me and Sean are 2. So when you think about that all taking place in the 2000s, in an era where every year there's seven or eight coaching vacancies, that's just so rare, it's so unique. And I'm just so grateful to have had the opportunity to play, not just with one coach during that time, but with one Sean Payton."
But before Brees could play for Payton – before he could pass for 68,010 of his career 80,358 yards and 491 of his 571 touchdown passes with New Orleans in 15 of his 20 NFL seasons – he had to figure out who was Payton.
"When I go back to 2006, when he became the head coach there, I'll never forget the day that I got a call from him when I was in Birmingham, Ala., rehabbing my shoulder," Brees said. "I answer the phone, I don't recognize the number. But that was at an interesting time leading up to free agency, where I felt like I had to be on watch for anybody and everybody that hopefully would be calling me, which I wasn't sure if there would be any coming off of that injury.
"I remember hearing his voice for the first time saying, 'Hey, Drew Brees. Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints.' And I remember looking over to my father-in-law who was driving me in the car at the time, because I was in the shoulder sling and all that stuff, and I kinda just said, 'Who's Sean Payton?' "
Turns out, Payton was exactly the kind of coach that Brees wanted to play for.
"I played for some old-school football coaches, like Marty Schottenheimer (with the Chargers), Joe Tiller at Purdue," Brees said. "Guys that just had these old school values about how football was meant to be played, meant to be coached, how you were supposed to practice, how you were supposed to approach your job each and every day.
"And certainly as football has progressed, especially over the last 15 years – and part of this is rules changes and how you're allowed to practice and how much you're allowed to hit and how physical you're allowed to be – just various things that you would say, 'The game's changed a little bit.' There's certain coaches that have much more of a player friendly style. You get maybe all of these labels for what type of a head coach is he.
"When I think about Sean Payton, he was this blend of, like, the exact way that I would want a head coach to be. His influences from Bill Parcells and others certainly brought out some of that old school mentality and that old school toughness and the kind of thing that we needed when he was first building this program back in 2006. But also this blend of, open-door policy.
"At any time, any player could go talk to Sean Payton and he was accessible. And he would tell you the truth. It may not be what you wanted to hear, but he was going to be honest with you and he was also going to give you a road map for success. You may not be in the position that you would want to be at that moment, and yet, he would lay out exactly how you could get to where you wanted to be, and how that would help the team, and how that would help accomplish not only your own personal goals but the goals of the team."
Brees said Payton's strength was placing the team first, and extracting the best from players, and he varied his approach to doing so.
"He knew how to have fun," Brees said. "Whether it was pulling up the buses during a tough training camp practice and taking us to the water park, or to the movies, on a road trip all of a sudden we're going to a Kenny Chesney concert, or finding a way to bring some levity to a team meeting by throwing up a funny video, or our guest captain Saturday morning team meetings during the year that became something that everyone looked forward to, and would just bring out all kinds of laughs and comedy.
"The rookie shows and the team dinners, the captains' dinners. I mean, you name it. I always felt like Coach Payton was thinking about how he could bring out the best in his team. Sometimes that was pushing us to the brink, sometimes that was putting his arm around us and giving us some love, throwing us a bone, encouraging us. Sometimes that was kind of breaking you down in front of everybody, to find the way that he felt like he needed to push your button, motivate and inspire and bring out the best in you.
"But at the end of the day, every decision that man made was in the best interest of the team. And it wasn't always what each individual would want, or felt like was comfortable. It certainly wasn't comfortable. He wasn't in the business of making you comfortable, he was in the business of bringing out the best in you."
That included Brees himself, a record-setting, Hall of Fame-bound player who set NFL records for accuracy and was a self-motivator of the highest degree.
"It would have been very easy to take a 'my way or the highway' approach," Brees said. "I think he did take that with some things. Like, there was a standard that we were going to set, there was a foundation we were going to build, a culture we were going to build and if you did not fit with that or chose not to embrace that, then he would be happy to show you the door.
"But when it came to building the offense, he was going to build it around me and what I did well and what I was comfortable with. He was also going to expose you to an element of offense that I had not been a part of before, and yet the combination of those two things was going to be the best thing that ever happened to me. It was going to be a perfect fit for my style and my capabilities. But certainly along the way, Sean had his way of motivating.
"I was self-motivated because, honestly, I always wanted to prove him right. He took a big chance on me, he took a big gamble on me, him and (Executive Vice President/General Manager) Mickey Loomis and (late owner) Mr. (Tom) Benson. Those three are solely responsible for me being in New Orleans – their belief in me, their trust and confidence that I could come in and be the quarterback for their football team. And so I always had it in my heart and in my mind that I wanted to prove them right, so I didn't need any extra motivation. But along the way, certainly we had moments."
Here, Brees laughed.
"It could be something as simple as I miss a throw, and maybe it was a concept Sean just put in or a route he just put in and he'd be like, 'Ah, it's OK. We'll bring in the backup to throw it.' Or, 'We'll wait till we have somebody else who can throw that, then we'll put it in.' Little subtle jabs like that, that you're like, 'All right, just let me practice this for a sec, I'll show you.' "
Each showed the other and in the end, it formed a near perfect union.