For all of the issues consuming Sean Payton this week — his New Orleans Saints are training in Texas, displaced by Hurricane Ida; half of his offensive coaching staff is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19; he lost three more key starters for significant time due to injuries — I was hardly expecting to get into a deep conversation about “mother love” when the coach called from the bus after Thursday’s practice.
Then again, over several years, conversations with Payton typically stray from football. It struck a nerve with Payton when I told him that I recently lost my mom, Elizabeth Bell. He lost his mother, Jeanne Payton, in 2002. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in mid-September of that year and died in mid-October. Payton shared how he processed his personal setback.
“What would she want?” Payton pondered, then added that she would have urged him to cherish the memories, to stay upbeat rather than wallow in misery.
NFL WEEK 2 PICKS: Can Saints surge ahead to 2-0?
It was appropriate in another sense that Payton reflected to such a degree during the commute from the temporary practice facilities in Fort Worth at TCU to the plush hotel in Las Colinas. No NFL coach deals with crisis better than Payton, whose Saints tenure began in 2006, when the New Orleans region was so challenged to rebound from Hurricane Katrina. He’s long been established as one of the NFL’s best when it comes to football strategy, but that’s just one layer of his impact. Payton has a special gift when it comes to exhibiting strong leadership amid chaos. Drama seems to bring out the best in him, which has been on display in multiple ways lately.
After an offseason wrapped in the intrigue of how the Saints would replace legendary quarterback Drew Brees, Hurricane Ida forced real-world audibles. The team fled to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in late August. And now this week, the COVID-19 factor.
“One thing I admire about our head coach is that he doesn’t blink an eye,” Jameis Winston, the new starting quarterback, told reporters on Wednesday. “He embraces these situations and voices to us how we should embrace them as well. We team up with him and roll with him.”
His mother's influence
I’ve wondered how Payton, 57, developed the swagger that doesn’t seem to wane when so many in the Saints universe — players and support staff — are looking for direction amid crisis. You’d expect that he would pay homage to Bill Parcells, whose name he frequently drops in meetings with his players. When Payton was under Parcells’ wing with the Dallas Cowboys, he says it was “like getting a law degree” in the higher ed of coaching. Payton’s high school coach had much influence, too. After all, it was J.R. Bishop who first told Payton, “When you’re done playing, you’re going to be a coach,” Payton recalled.
Yet more than anyone, the coach traces his resolve to Jeanne Payton.
“She was the constant optimist,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports. “My father worked in insurance. He was much more reserved. With her, the glass was always half-full…That’s not a coaching trait. That’s a personality trait.”
The Saints routed the Green Bay Packers 38-3 in the biggest upset of Week 1 in Jacksonville, Florida, the steamy site that Payton handpicked for the transplanted home game. While the New Orleans defense was superb, the question about Brees’ replacement was answered by the five TD passes thrown by a composed Winston. In another measure of crisis management, the Saints are 9-1 without Brees, dating to 2019.
This week, though, with a divisional game at Carolina looming, Payton has been more hands-on than usual given that several of his offensive coaches quarantined. The staff is 100% vaccinated, which fuels the team’s hope that the coaches will be cleared soon with two negative tests on consecutive days, provided they don’t show any COVID-19 symptoms.
The commutes to and from practice have extended the days, yet Payton thinks the focus is better with meetings and meals at the hotel.
“And all the while,” he said, “your players are together.”
Remember, last year as the pandemic threatened the NFL season, Payton created an NBA-like “bubble” for his team during training camp and an overwhelming majority of the players opted to stay at a downtown hotel. When the inevitability of evacuating surfaced, Payton felt the Saints would easily draw on their 2020 experience.
“Nobody wants that, especially with all the things that have happened in our region,” Payton said, referring to hurricane incidents.
But having an evacuation plan comes with the territory for the Saints.
"I looked at Mickey (Loomis, the Saints GM) and said, ‘You tell me when and we’re ready,’ “ Payton said.
Surely, they were ready on Sunday, when Payton also brought the “A-game” for his play-calling. One of his most pivotal decisions came on a fourth-and-7 from the Packers' 41-yard line in the second quarter. He went for it and stung Green Bay with a tight end screen for Juwan Johnson that gained 12 yards and led to the TD that expanded the lead to 17-0. It was the right play against the ideal defense.
“It came from studying the Rams,” Payton said, referring to new Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s previous job and the schemes he employed. “The hard thing about Week 1 is that you don’t always know what you’re getting with a new coach, and they’re not showing anything in preseason. But we were looking at a lot of Rams cut-ups.”
'Getting off the mat'
After Sunday’s game, the Saints will return to Texas to prepare for a Week 3 game at New England. Although some of the players’ families have already returned to New Orleans and the team’s headquarters in Metairie, Louisiana, and the Superdome were unscathed by Ida, Payton is preaching caution. The Saints won’t go back to New Orleans until Sept. 26. Payton is bracing himself for various issues that could affect players and their families, such as securing certain essentials in short supply as the region rebounds.
“Some people joke that I want to stay here all season,” Payton said. “Let’s just say I’m not in a hurry to go back. I just want to eliminate distractions.”
Ah, distractions. Always annoying for any given coach, although the typical football issues are only the beginning.
“It’s always something,” Payton said. For a team without 11 starters from last season, including star wideout Michael Thomas, recovering from foot surgery, the setbacks from Sunday piled on to the woes. Defensive end Marcus Davenport, center Erik McCoy and cornerback Marshon Lattimore are all expected to miss multiple games with injuries.
“Parcells used to always say that when you’ve had a game on Sunday, by noon or 1 o’clock on Monday and you find out about injuries, that game has disappeared. It’s on to the next one.”
In this case, though, add the COVID-19 factor with the coaches and being displaced for a month. Payton’s vibe must endure some more tests.
“There’s never a time — even when I’ve had my greatest successes — when I’m not getting off the mat,” he said.
In other words, it wouldn’t feel right if he were not dealing with some adversity or angling to disprove doubters.
When he describes his mother, he talks about her grit and upbeat persona.
“That was her mindset,” Payton said. “She was frickin’ tough.”
He sounds like he’s also describing himself. And no, he is not looking for pity.
“I tell our team this: We may be dealing with stuff, but in the end, do you think anyone really cares?” Payton said. “I remember the 49ers had to spend three weeks in Phoenix last year and the Chargers have relocated because of fires. We hear about it but ultimately it’s, ‘Who won the game?’ “
Crisis or not, the NFL is still a bottom-line business.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sean Payton helps New Orleans Saints navigate unparalleled NFL chaos