New Orleans Saints Head Coach Sean Payton
Conference Call with New Orleans Media
Thursday, January 21, 2021
Now that it's a couple days in the rear view, can you just, I guess, capsulize the season and what your thoughts are on it?
"Well, look, there's so much that went into it. The first thing, obviously, in light of this year's season and all the testing and COVID protocols, I thought this team, particularly this team, and I told them afterwards, was outstanding in so many areas relative to some of the adversity and distractions, and I thought it was a tough-minded group. I was proud of them. I mean, look, it's going to end well for one team and having experienced that before, we know what that's like. But, I thought on a number of occasions, when it would have been easy to look at it with a glass half empty type of outlook, I thought these guys really battled and that was encouraging. I mean, I thought we had good leadership, we had a good mix of veteran, young players that contributed, a lot of players that contributed. That's the first thing that comes to mind."
Thinking about that in particular, what was it like this season just having to turn the focus on football when something so serious was kind of happening all across the country?
"Yeah, look, I think in a number of different ways, it became a positive outlet. I think for us, I think we were smart enough, and obviously fortunate enough, to still have real good jobs. I think when you look around the country and how this affected many people, relative to their work, that's something I don't think anyone took for granted. And then, probably like every other team, we're kind of routine driven where you begin to get in the schedule, and although it's different, every morning, you're in the COVID trailer, and then the next step is filling out your email that you receive every morning that you have to with (disclosing) your temperature in it and then (starting) meetings. You kind of get into this season routine, and it's long, but it can go by pretty quick. And you lose track of the weeks, the months and you're really opponent-driven relative to what week are you in, when's the bye week, that kind of thing. But I think there's so much that took place during the year and I hate to even approach all the unrest in our country relative to so many topics. I think that this locker room and playing these games, it wasn't a respite for these players, but a way to help in some regards, I think we look at it that way. I think the league did a real good job, all things considered, the challenges they had when you look at the amount of players and coaches and the logistics in a difficult year."
That way to help you just mentioned, just help regular people get through this, is that what you meant by that?
"So many different ways. Yeah, I mean, that's, for the people that are looking forward to some entertainment or some hope on the weekends, but also many of the causes that our players to start the year. The Say Her Name campaign that our leadership looked at as an important part of the Saints season. I could go on and on."
I'm curious, atmospherically, with no fans in the stadiums and stuff like that, is there anything looking back that was a surprise with the impact of that?
"Yeah, good question. So much of change you get used to that it becomes habit and then it becomes normal. So I think when we go back to fans in the stadiums, whenever that happens, that will be changed and a welcoming change. I think there'll be a handful things maybe that having gone through this that will be adjusted maybe and we'll realize there's certain things we could do maybe at a distance more than we have in the past, what would have been the biggest? Oh, let's see. I think the travel and getting to these various cities and hotels where it's just you and there's no one else. And then the restrictions at the hotel where (for example) you pick up a pregame meal, or even an evening snack, there's no tables, and everyone's eating in the rooms. There were so many things that were I would not say challenging, but just ones that you were just like, (for example) It's hard to have your group together, but on the practice field that existed and then following a practice or in our team meeting space that became the field house or the indoor, we were able to conduct some of those things. But yeah, I think there were hundreds of changes and some of them I think will be adopted, and some, probably a large amount of them will eventually go back to what was the old norm."
You guys have had some change over (on the coaching end), some guys leaving. I'm just curious, there seems to be like a lot of speculation about Ryan Nielsen and people are speculating on maybe the impact of that or someone being upset or anything like that. Are you guys good there?
"We're outstanding. Literally, he was just in my office 60 seconds ago, we're fantastic. Fired up he's returning. Every once in a while in this business, you have talented people, and you work with, you work hard, and they have other opportunities. And then every once in a while, you go into recruiting mode. And listen, he's someone that very soon you're going to see as a head coach at the NFL level, and he's extremely talented. And I'm fired up that he's returning and signed on for three more years. But I think he's going to be one of those guys, just like we're seeing with Dan Campbell and soon to see I'm sure with Dennis Allen. He's going to be one of those guys that before long, and it won't be long, will be a head coach in this league."
Along the lines, what's your philosophy on keeping your staff together and also wanting some of your guys to get promotions? It's got to be a delicate balance I would imagine.
"Yeah, it's always been, honestly, look, periodically, you'll see something that says the Saints denied permission. Occasionally, an assistant coach will ask me, look, that's going to be easier for me if you do that, because I'm not at that moment in time interested in that job. And I get that and so typically, team to team in our league, I'm proud of the number of guys we've had come through here and go on. Doug Marrone, who ended up becoming a head coach in college and the NFL. Mike Neu just won a MAC championship, was an assistant here and became the head coach at Ball State. Dennis Allen obviously, Aaron Kromer went on to become an offensive coordinator. Terry Fontenot's now the GM of Atlanta, Ryan Pace, GM of the Bears. I could go on and on with guys that have seen promotions and that's something I know Mickey (Loomis) and I both look at as a positive. Mr. B once came to see me and said, 'Hey, we got a lot of these guys interviewing coach.' And I said to him, 'Mr. B, it is not a concern.' I said, 'The concern should be when no one has any interest in talking to any of your people.' And so this year is no different. I just finished watching Dan Campbell, a little bit of his press conference. And it was it was exciting just to see him. I've been with Dan for a long time now at New York and Dallas, of course here and tried to hire him here (in) a number of cases. Dennis just returned from an interview with the Eagles. So there's a number of things that are potentially happening and that means we're winning and that means we're doing a good job and so I'm encouraged for those guys."
You said you and Ryan (Nielsen) were fired up. Was that because you were watching Dan Campbell's press conference?
"Well, he's just finished. Now Dan Campbell's press conference took the better part of an hour and a half. So I have to send him a text on that (laughter). Maybe that was just because of Zoom. But he did great I thought. You guys that have been around him understand his passion. We're in that passion business. And no, Ryan had just poked his head in. We were going through a few different things and then the noon hour came, but I think that's the business we're in. And we're looking for coaches, we're looking for scouts, we're looking for anybody who's working in the football operation side. And for that matter, working for the Saints, because I know probably for Dennis Lauscha and everyone relative to what they're doing with the Pelicans. We're in the business of people that are passionate about their jobs. And if you focus on the end of winning and doing your best, I think the other things kind of take care of themselves. And I can draw on my experiences as an assistant and just know that it winds up working out. And so when you see it, literally, for someone like Dan, it's exciting."
When you mentioned that you think some changes might be adopted from the season, is there any one or two that you will particularly campaign for or would like to see become permanent?
"Well, look, there are certain things we do that are a little bit more efficient. I think that, oh, I mean, look, it's easier for me to get on my desk and make a call with a Saints backdrop to you guys on Friday. But I also think there's something about you guys being out there and so that wouldn't be necessarily one of them. But I think that the interviews, either with college athletes or with, there's a ton of face to face interviews that will take place in the course of a given year with scouting prospects, with coaching prospects. And I think that we've all gotten a little bit better with this idea of Zooming someone in, at least for an informal interview. But we're still kind of in the middle of it, I think as we look at this calendar. And every year when the season ends, that next week you do a calendar, Tuesday mapped out our calendar here all the way, I couldn't get all the way to training camp, because there are a few dates that aren't set yet. But it goes all the way through the draft. And we don't have the same flexibility with the Senior Bowl. That's going to be limited relative to how many. We don't have the same, there's not going to be a combine as we know it. So there's going to be some changes that we're still dealing with in 2021. But I, even from our own schedule, we began to meet Mike (Triplett) here on Saturdays at the facility and go through the first 10 plays offensively, defensively, go through some of the reminders. And then give these guys a little bit more time in the evening. I think some of the players, myself, some of the coaches actually began to kind of like that schedule, relative to the night before a game. So it's those little things that you'll look back on and say, 'Well, this was pretty good.' And I think that might vary for teams."
What are the things you're looking to get back to?
"Just the hands on. Like there's an element of your team when you can be closer, when you can be down in a dining hall or when you can be, I mean, some of that I think will be welcome. I think that, oh, look, I think for all of us in our everyday lives, that concern of this virus being gone and there's nothing like being able to see someone in person with a hug or a handshake and that normalcy I think we all miss."
You mentioned Terry Fontenot, I wanted to ask how do you think that NFL incentives they implement have worked out so far?
"Yeah, listen, I think in fairness to that, you have to wait till it's complete and the general manager searches I think have finished. But they certainly haven't met their goals relative to the head coaches. How do you evaluate that over a period of one year, three years, five years, I still think and I've said this before, I still think there's ways we can effectively address that and have more success. I think the hiring cycle still in-season's something that needs to be looked at. I've kind of been pushing for moving that back until the Monday after the Super Bowl for any football position. And then beginning at that time to evaluate. Head coaches having a chance to interview, GMs having a chance to interview and then assistants. I just think when it begins right now, and you still have quality candidates that are involved in the postseason, there are times the clubs will grow impatient and I think our offseason's changed, it's been pushed back, the schedule's much different now, the calendar. And I don't see a real reason why we shouldn't evaluate closely, the hiring season. There's a lot of good that can come from that and take the pressure away from the candidates that are in these postseason games that are Zooming with or preparing with for several interviews with owners. That's a big deal, you want to certainly put your best foot forward. But if a candidate is with a Super Bowl contender, there isn't that hurry, at least I don't see it. To answer your question from the beginning, it's still something we're behind with when you look at the head coaches, I mean, clearly."
Did this year have an impact on the rookies and how they developed? Was it any different than other years just because of the way things were?
"It had to, to some degree, because you did not have your hands on rookie camp where they're on the grass learning techniques. it was all zoom meetings so they had less hands on training. Now collectively, they had it together as a rookie class, it was not just one team. But I think it had to, to some degree and look, it might be the same this upcoming season until we kind of see otherwise, or see where the schedule could change. I would expect there's a chance of the same this upcoming season. But you adapt, right? You adapt quickly and quickly try to as best you can, in training camp, get them caught up to speed and look, you'd say this, our league still saw a tremendous amount of great play by rookie players, guys that came on as receivers, defensive backs, name the position, defensive lineman, some exciting players that made impacts and were a big part of their team's success. I think we saw that actually happen. So I think it's really adapting to what the circumstances are."
The way you look at like, fill in holes on the roster, like maybe lower down or can you look at rookies as having like an immediate impact, or I don't know, does that change anything about that?
"Yeah, I know going into the draft last year, we thought there might be a reduced period of time we had with these players. We've always put a high emphasis on intelligence and their ability to learn and, fortunately, we were able to find a number of young players, even some of them undrafted that had an impact with our team. So I think the same will be said. But as we begin to look at 2021's roster, there's a lot of go into that. We're currently evaluating our own team right now, if you said, 'Hey, this first week, usually we're writing reports, we're going to discuss every player on the roster for a period of two or three days, after the reports are written.' That's what's going to make or take up most of our time here in the next call it two to three weeks."
Going back to the assistants leaving and Terry Fontenot, what are your thoughts on this going forward? Do you feel sad that it kind of feels like the end of an era in some ways, after you all have been together so long, or is it kind of reinvigorating to think of all the new faces and new coaches that will be around next year?
"Well, look, it's, I think we've had years where we've lost more. I mean, currently, it appears we might lose two, maybe a third coach. I mean, I don't know. And, obviously, we're replacing Terry (Fontenot), who was outstanding in his role. I think each year, you grow to handle the change and embrace the change. And then, you know, you're looking for the next young Ryan Nielsen. You're looking for the next young Aaron Glenn or you're looking for the next young assistant or the next Terry Fontenot. I think that it's part of what we do, it is part of our job. And so, I do not feel like this year was particularly more. I mean, in other words, whenever you have an assistant get a head job, that's significant. But I don't, I don't think, I mean, I think we've seen turnover, maybe some years, not as much. It kind of runs together after a while."
The salary cap situation, will (that) preclude you from bringing back any player that you are keenly interested in returning?
"Ed (Daniels), it is a good question. I would like to think it will not. I think, what we do not know is, take the player you are referencing, which could be any player. Well, what is the number for that player to get him back? Or what's the number that someone else may be interested in signing him? Obviously, we have to wait to see where that cap number falls. And we'll begin the process of studying the roster and then looking closely at those decisions, but I think that we've always found a way relative to certainly the players we know, to work through some of the challenges and some of the obstacles and put the best team on the field that we feel like is possible. And that will be something that won't change this year. Will it be challenging? Yeah, I'm sure it will be. But certainly, you know, we'll be looking at solution-based decisions that we feel like are best for the Saints. And that process really begins."
As a follow up real quick, do you think that because a guy maybe knows your organization and is comfortable in it, you might be able to get a little bit of a hometown discount, or you think that's overstated?
"Well, I think, in fairness to the question, I think it can vary per player. Look, there are some players and I understand it, that are going to look to maximize, hey this is it, I totally get it and respect it and understand it. And then periodically, there will be a player that, man, doesn't want to change, where he's at and is very comfortable. Now, he's not, within reason. And that same thing can exist for not just players, that can be employees. And then periodically, there's someone that wants to get back to the northeast or someone that wants to get back to the West Coast. Hopefully, and what we've tried to do is develop a culture that's conducive to winning, where players enjoy coming to work, it's competitive, it's fair. All those things that we think are important to winning. And it's hard to measure how many jump balls, then you win with that."
Sean (Payton), how do you view the quarterback position? Now, obviously, you've got to wait on Drew's (Brees) decision, can you kind of address where you think you stand at that position?
"Yeah, and I've said it a number of times. I'm real confident in the players. We have a real good room. I'm excited about Jameis Winston, I'm excited about Taysom Hill. Those are guys that we've had a chance, obviously, to see for a period of time. Not as long, maybe not as much time with Jameis. But I think that we will handle it accordingly. I mean, that position is important. It's vital. And that's why we paid attention to, like an offseason signing like Jameis or paid attention to keeping Taysom here. We knew there's a chance at some point in time, we'll be dealing with a transition. And we're going to try to be as prepared as we can when that time comes in. So, I really like the prospects of those players, and having seen them up close and personal."
I'm looking forward to a Senior Bowl story here with this, so it doesn't necessarily have to be your team right now. But, do you believe that it's hard for mid-round quarterback prospects to develop and become NFL quarterbacks? There's so few examples of them working. Getting back to Tony Romo?
"So, tell me when mid-round begins? Does it begin before or after Russell Wilson?"
Right, there are examples for sure. I'm just asking if you think it's harder?
"If there are examples, we're constantly looking at those because I think it's a position that oftentimes is poorly evaluated. There's some years you look at the first round, and wonder how this could have happened. And then, it's even a bigger shock, because, that's how the mocks had him being drafted. And then, clearly, something went wrong and they weren't developed because we mocked him there. They were drafted there and I think there's so much that goes into it, that, it's not perfect relative to a science. And yet, I think there are, and history's shown us. It is, look, more of them are found in the early rounds. No question. And yet there are great exceptions where guys were taken a little bit later and had great success. So, it's what you are looking for, what's the vision for your club? What do you think they do well? And then can they win? Clearly we spend a lot of time on that position and for good reason."
Do you think half of that is an issue in the NFL at all? I mean, if you take the guy in the fifth round thinking, teach him how to become a quarterback, and he'll become a quarterback in three years? Is it hard for teams to have the patience to do that, I guess?
"Do you think it's, and I'm just, the same challenge if you take him three overall or in the third round could potentially exist, does the league have the patience for that. And that question is asked every year, because the timeframe, these guys that are getting drafted early are going to teams, maybe that haven't had success. The timeframe matched, the timeframe for the staff that drafted him. And look, I think we've seen examples where it does. We've seen examples where maybe it doesn't. So, I think to some degree, it's team by team driven."
I don't know if you saw yesterday, it kind of made the news rounds, where Brittany Brees made an emotional post, talking about Drew and she talked about injuries besides the rib, the torn rotator cuff and a foot injury. Not that I am going to ask specifically about that. But, maybe if you could talk about the physical toll you saw Drew (go through this year to compete every week? And if you did want to speak specifically about anything she mentioned?
"I didn't. Look, over the years his durability and availability is quite amazing. When you think of the amount of games, the amount of years you're playing that position. There is that physical wear and tear. And I can recall so many of these different injuries. I mean, back when he missed the Carolina game (in the past) because of an oblique or a stomach pull that was, it was gut-wrenching for him to throw. He was the first one that told me about what a plantar fascia was because I really never knew what it was until I ripped mine in training camp. And then all of a sudden, I realized how much that hurt. And then, obviously his recovery. His story of overcoming an injury no one had ever had (suffered) before (and fully recovered from), at the quarterback position with a rotator cuff (injury). I think he is as courageous and tough a player as I have ever been around. Not only physically but mentally. And I also know, man, there is a grind mentally, a physical, or excuse me, a wear and tear each week of getting ready to play at that level and the level he expects himself to play at. So, nothing that he ever does surprises you, because you've just seen it time and time again. And he's a fantastic, (not only) one of the best players obviously of all time, but one of the best teammates, and one of the best guys to be around and coach. And he and I had a good visit earlier this week, after the end of the season. And you just cannot put it into words in one little meeting or one little, there is just so much, you want to almost get a book out and jot down notes. Because, I know my memory will only fade and not get stronger and you do not want to lose track of certain things over the years that have come up that were special. And he had me watching this show on Showtime or (HBO) Max. It is about the football coach going over to coach soccer in Europe. Something Lasso, I think it is, I'm not sure. So, I started watching this show and called him halfway through the series like, on episode 7. This guy's coaching this soccer team. They're all staying in a hotel over in England. It was the same hotel we stayed at when we played the Dolphins there two years ago. And I'm like, did you even realize they were staying at this hotel? So, back to his toughness and his grit and determination. I think that it's a big part of what's made him and it's been unbelievable to witness firsthand."
A follow up real quick too. One, it's Apple, I'm positive. I think it's Ted Lasso, with Jason Sudeikis?
"Ted Lasso. That's it."
And just to follow up, though. Do you all, you talked about approaching the offseason and the changes with Terry (Fontenot) and the coaching staff, knowing that Drew Brees' decision is looming, how different is this week or the week going forward with making, knowing that there could be a change that potentially would be considered the most important position? You know, or one of the most important positions on the team?
"Yeah, I think we've got a pretty good handle on, look, we're in our first week. And we know our scouts directly will be at the Senior Bowl. Only 10 per club will have access to that film (physically being at practices). There always seems to be a flurry or a sense of urgency, all these things are happening, there's hiring and experience has begun to teach me to just kind of, slow and steady here, look at what's taking place. And we'll (attack) first things first, replace the real good coaches or personnel people we've lost. We will begin the process, obviously, of evaluating our team, and then begin the process of evaluating prospects that can help our team, whether they are free agents, or draft eligible players. That's kind of been the calendar schedule. There won't be as much travel, still with some of the restrictions. So some of it will be more from the office. You have the potential to draft someone this year, maybe that you haven't met, or at least you haven't met in person, and that's okay. But, yeah, there will be an order in which we continue to do business. And it's something we feel like has served us well."