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Sean Payton displays ingenuity, adaptability while leading New Orleans Saints in first half

Check out the best action photos from the New Orleans Saints in October presented by Sony
Check out the best action photos from the New Orleans Saints in October presented by Sony

Pull up on the hyperbole.

Gently, yes. Still, though, pull up, at least for now.

Sean Payton has coached the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl victory, in 2009. He has led them to the NFC Championship Game three times: ’06, ’09 and ’18. A person would need all his fingers and a couple of toes to number the times the Saints have had a top 10 offense during his 13-year tenure, including a 13-3 team in 2011 when New Orleans set an NFL single-season record in net yards (7,474) and a franchise record for points scored (547).

Payton has some doozies on the resume when considering his finest single-season coaching jobs in New Orleans, and all of them have to rank higher than the current half-season.

But this year is tossing elbows and carving out space, if not creating a category of its own. Because thus far, the 2019 season likely has seen Payton and the Saints (7-1) at their chameleonic best under his direction.

With a 1-1 record, and staring at life without starting quarterback Drew Brees, for the first extended period of time since the future Pro Football Hall of Famer was signed as an unrestricted free agent in 2006, the Saints won five straight games and rocketed to the top of the NFC South Division, and into contention for the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

They won with punt rush – a blocked punt for a safety, and a tipped one against the Bears.

They won with punt and fumble return – both for touchdowns, against Seattle.

They won with field goals – four in a 12-10 victory against Dallas, and two in a 13-6 win at Jacksonville.

They won with offense - backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for 314 yards and four touchdowns against Tampa Bay, and 281 yards and two touchdowns against Chicago, en route to completing 70 percent of his passes (for 1,205 yards and nine touchdowns, with two interceptions), during the five-game winning streak.

They won with defense – 10 points allowed to Dallas, six surrendered to Jacksonville, nine given up to Arizona, and five straight games of holding opponents to 257 yards or less.

They won with Brees, when he returned after a five-game absence due to thumb surgery – 31-9 over Arizona, with Brees completing 34 of 43 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns, with an interception.

They won without their dynamic running back and starting tight end – Alvin Kamara and Jared Cook sat out victories over Chicago and Arizona, New Orleans’ first back-to-back, 30-point games of the season.

They won.

And won.

And won.

And won.

And won.

And won.

With Payton and his staff teaching and tweaking and catering and cajoling, the Saints entered their bye week with a six-game winning streak, the third consecutive year they constructed a run at least that long. And they’ve done it with this one assuming an identity foreign to the previous two.

This one has been less offense-reliant and with more defense and special teams balance to the three-unit operation, with each phase offering timely contributions at the needed time.

“Sean always does a great job,” said Brees, the only player on the current roster who has been a Saint for each of Payton’s 125 regular-season victories (133 including playoffs). “I think one of his great strengths is taking the talents and abilities of what he has and maximizing those. Putting everybody in the best position to succeed.

“He does that time and time again, but as you have seen different guys go out with injury and other guys step up and having to shift the lineup around a little bit and do different things, he continues to (do that), him and the whole staff for that matter. Listen, we've got excellent assistant coaches and so all of them together as a group work extremely hard to put us all in the best position to succeed on Sunday.”

If that has meant No. 3 quarterback Taysom Hill moving up to No. 2 behind Bridgewater, and playing less special teams but catching more passes, then that’s what it has meant.

If it has meant running back Latavius Murray having back-to-back, 30-touch games in Kamara’s absence – totaling 48 carries for 221 rushing yards, 14 catches for 86 yards and four touchdowns; the first back-to-back, 30-touch games in his career – that’s what it has meant.

If it has meant feeding receiver Michael Thomas to the point where he’s a legitimate NFL MVP candidate, with 73 catches for 875 yards and four touchdowns at the midpoint of the season, that’s what it has meant.

If it has meant grooming rookie defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson into a nickel back worthy of stepping in and starting when P.J. Williams was suspended for two games, and the defense not missing a beat, that’s what it has meant.

If it has meant having rookie center Erik McCoy play almost every down of his NFL career, and show very few cracks during his on-the-job training, that’s what it has meant.

“I think he’s done a great job this year, but I think he does a great job every year,” said Saints Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis, who hired Payton in 2006. “I think we have one of the premier coaches in professional sports, and we’re lucky enough to have that. You begin with that.

“Every year, Sean always – he’s never satisfied, so he’s always looking for things that he, and we, can improve. I think when Drew went down, that was a great opportunity for our coaches to kind of expand their repertoire and get ourselves out of a comfort zone, maybe. It’s a great teaching opportunity, because we’re not relying on Drew to make things right, like we’ve been able to do for the bulk of the last 13 or 14 years.

“So I think that he in particular, and obviously our staff, had the right attitude about that – ‘Man, this is a great opportunity for us.’ And I think that filtered down to our players, too, that it’s a great opportunity for some other players to step up. Players and coaches, I felt like everybody stepped up and did their job just a little better and it resulted in a pretty good win streak.”

The adaptability – Brees only had missed three games in his Saints career before this season, and two of them were “rest” games, after the Saints had clinched the No. 1 seed for the playoffs – and ability to prod more out of the roster reinforces what Loomis believed from the beginning about Payton.

Even when sailing hasn’t been smooth, he thought Payton was the right man for the job.

“I’d be lying if I said that this year had anything to do with that,” Loomis said. “I felt that way from 2006. From the first year, I felt like, man, we got the right guy. And even the next two years, we were 7-9 and 8-8, and I was more convicted than ever that we had the right guy. And the same things when we went through the stretch in 2014, ’15 and ’16 (three consecutive 7-9 seasons).

“Success for your team can be very cyclical. Your team can get older, and you’re picking later, and it’s hard to win and win the division every year. So there is going to be some cyclical nature to professional sports. And it’s OK, (because) I knew we had the right guy the whole time. I don’t want to say this year reinforces, but it does.”

Loomis said he believed the team would respond well to Brees’ absence.

“The great thing about coaches and scouts at this level is that they know how to handle adversity, because we all have it,” he said. “This is just more adversity. I just remember looking at one of his first comments after the (Rams) game. It was, hey, this is going to give us a chance to expand our coaching chops and do some things maybe a little bit outside the box, a little outside the comfort zone. I know that he was excited about that.

“No one was excited about Drew being hurt – don’t get me wrong here. But he was excited to have a different look at the way he was coaching our team and how we might win games.”

They haven’t won in every way imaginable, but there aren’t many unchecked boxes on the list.

In the opinion of many, it has been Coach of the Year-caliber winning.

“I just came out with my half-season predictions and awards, and I gave Sean Payton the Coach of the Year,” said Brian Baldinger, an analyst for NFL Network who had a 12-year career as an offensive lineman for Dallas, Indianapolis and Philadelphia.

“When you replace Drew Brees, it’s more than just a Hall of Fame quarterback. He wrote the offense, he changes the plays, he’s in charge of the run game and where the run goes, and if you’re changing from run to pass. He does all of that. And Teddy has been there for a year-and-a-half, he learned a lot. But that’s a lot to ask anybody to do. And the offense had to adjust a little bit.

“We’ll see how it all ends up. Obviously, the year they won the Super Bowl, they led the league in takeaways, he did a great job that year. But through the first half of the season, I would have to say this is probably the best job Sean has done since that Super Bowl year.”

There’s time left, and this season eventually will be slotted into its proper place.

Or, perhaps, it’ll create a space of its own.

Check out photos of the on-field action between the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 of the 2019 NFL season.

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