How the Saints destroyed the Eagles — an inside look

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NEW ORLEANS — “This is the first time in NFL history a play like this has been run from this formation! Ever!” jovial Saints coach Sean Payton called out to his offensive team Saturday night in a second-floor ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton on Canal Street. This was a man in love with his job.

The NFL’s state-of-the-art offense was doing a final walk-through in the Salon II ballroom before facing the Eagles on Sunday in the Superdome. (New Orleans embarrassed Philadelphia, 48-7, the worst loss ever by a defending Super Bowl champion.) Quite a sight, as the players lined up and walked/slow-jogged through the first 15 plays they planned to run. Alvin Kamara, wearing flip-flops, black socks and a red hoodie obscuring much of his face. Brees, in shorts, untied sneakers and a black T-shirt pumping his FNA co-ed flag football league.

Payton, in a blue pullover, playing defense.

Payton called out the name of Sunday’s bizarre play: “Q stop, G snug. Right empty. QB 38 Z Crush Alley.” On cue, Brees joined two wideouts to the left in a bunch formation (three receivers, snug to each other), while jack-of-all-trades-quarterback Taysom Hill joined the same type of bunch formation to the right.

Damndest thing I ever saw: Five linemen up front. Three receivers left, three receivers right.

No quarterback.

As instructed, Brees trailed two bigger wideouts on the left side of the formation. The coaches lined up as Eagle defensive players.

“I got Drew!” Payton said, crouching a bit across from the left bunch, like a press corner. “And don’t screw up the cadence, Taysom!”

The 11 offensive guys got set, and at the last minute, Hill motioned left to a shotgun position and called out the signals. Center Max Unger snapped it to him, and Hill powered right in a slow jog behind a slew of blockers. The play would be a power run, and it would fit into exactly what Payton told his players in this meeting: “Our emphasis in this game is to run at 22 [cornerback Sidney Jones]. He’s coming off a hamstring, and we don’t think he can hold up.”

No fooling around. All business, even on this weird play. Strange seeing football players practice at 30-percent speed in hoodies and jeans and whatever, with coaches playing Fletcher Cox and Malcolm Jenkins. After 15 minutes, each play run the same way, Payton said, “Let’s break it down,” and they gathered in a circle, said something I couldn’t understand, and the players went to team snack. (More than a snack, actually; it was a full-blown buffet meal.)

In the wide hallway outside Salon II, I asked Payton: “How’d you think of the double-bunch play?”

“Thursday night,” Payton said. “Just doodling. Just thinking. I just thought of it, and I said to the coaches, ‘Will this work?’ And [quarterbacks coach] Joe Lombardi said, ‘Why not? We can do anything we want.’ When I told Troy Aikman about it [in the FOX production meeting], he said, ‘Who’s getting the snap?’ I said, ‘No one. Yet.’ “

Payton thought for a minute, giving a John Nash look into the distance. “Part of it, really, is thinking of something that they [the Eagles] haven’t seen. That’s the job of a game-planner. You want eight heads to turn to [smart Eagles veteran safety] Malcolm Jenkins and be like, ‘What do we do?’ “

Payton took my notebook and drew out the formation. He said sometime later in the game, they’d reverse the call. It’d be Brees who’d go behind center at the last second and take a snap. Only this time it wouldn’t be a power run. Brees would throw it—maybe a quick stop route to the left, or a post from a receiver in the right bunch.

By that time, the players had all relocated to the ballroom with the food. Except for one player. That player was playing a grand piano—and playing it very, very well.

We looked over, and I asked Payton who it was.

“Austin Carr,” Payton said. “Wide receiver. President of his class at Northwestern. He’ll be the president of the United States when he retires.”

Carr played for a while, beautifully. I went over to ask him about playing.

“Just relieving some tension,” said Carr, talking while his fingers moved over the keys. He said he loves the music of John Legend. This music is what you’d hear from someone coming out of Juilliard.

“The song’s beautiful,” I said. “What’s it called?”

“I haven’t named it yet,” he said.

Lots of composers in this Saints group.

Intermission: This is not the usual Football Morning in America column. Last week, I asked Sean Payton if one weekend this year I could write about his Saturday night meeting, and about the relationship between he and Drew Brees, who is having the greatest year of his life (and one of the greatest years a quarterback’s ever had, regardless of age) at age 39. Payton agreed, and so Saturday night around 7, Payton’s assistant, Kevin Petry, took me onto the second floor of the Ritz-Carlton for the Saints meetings, which ran from 8 (Payton actually kicked it off at 7:59) till about 10:40. This is the story of that evening.

I should tell you that the coaches seemed to get a kick out of an interloper among them. The evening began with the coaching staff in a smaller room, the LaSalle Room, at the end of the hall, with 17 men sitting around a large U-shaped table with a white screen at the top of the “U.” I sat in back behind the table, next to the side wall. “You’re embedded in here tonight, right?” Payton said, looking at me. “That the right word, Peter? That’s what they used to have in wars, right? Don’t see that anymore.”

Lombardi piped up: “Not quite the same hardship here at the Ritz.”

This is what I learned about the best offense in this offensively explosive period of football: It’s a more democratic group than I thought. This isn’t an autocratic Payton dictating plays. Drew Brees has a ton of input in plays he wants to run. Brees’ historically accurate season (he’s a 67-percent career passer, completing 77 percent this year) has a lot to do with his symbiotic relationship with Payton, and with both of them knowing what works best for an offense that’s quite complex. But it’s an offense they’ve nurtured and expanded since both came to the Saints in 2006. As Carr told me: “I can attest to the democratic process here. There’s an ethos of leaving your ego at the door. Lots of teams say that, but you don’t always see it. Sean’s OK when Drew says, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ and same with Drew about Sean. They’ve found the sweet spot in dealing with each other.”

I saw that in the final meeting of the night. More about that later.

First, let me explain what the night is like. It has six segments: a short all-coaches meeting, maybe 10 minutes; a 20-minute discussion about the first 15 plays Payton intends to call; a very short (maybe five to 10 minutes) all-team meeting, with a message mainly from Payton; the walk-through with the offense; the all-team snack (and, on this night, piano-playing); and finally, a meeting of about 40 minutes with Brees telling Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and Lombardi what he likes and doesn’t like in the game plan.

The all-coaches meeting has a discussion of injuries and who will be active and inactive, and a message from Payton. Two things tonight: “We gotta run right at 22 [Jones] and we gotta throw at 22. We’re gonna make him defend the run on the first play. We’re going after him on three of the first eight plays.”

And then, a bit of a surprise. “We want to put the game on [Eagles quarterback Carson] Wentz,” Payton said. Payton likes Wentz as a player, but his player-personnel analyst, Ryan Herman, gives him trends and numbers every week, and Payton tells the group two interesting ones about Wentz, from Herman: The Eagles are 1-11 when Wentz plays and they allow more than 26 points. And he’s 0-9 when he passes for between 308 and 364 yards, the point being if he does that, the Eagles likely won’t be running the ball well, and the Saints feel they can beat a one-dimensional offense.

Then the defensive coaches left to work on their own, and the offensive coaches work on the opening plays. On the screen, Payton’s opening plays come up … and the double-bunch is number five. Clearly, it’s going to be called early in the game. Payton wants to see the big-bodied Hill steaming around right end at number 22. (He never calls him “Sidney Jones.” Just “22.”) For a stranger who doesn’t know the Saints’ vernacular, listening to the discussion of each play is like listening to Dutch. One of the reasons Payton isn’t paranoid about me sitting in, I’m sure, is that when I hear, “Snug left, Y fly, P 35 Stab dog F rail,” I’m not going to know what it means—and that’s just the way they like it.

“Ball security in this game is everything,” Payton said. “They’ve got a great front. They’ll come after us. They have to win this game. Let’s go win another one.

“Because it’s the next one.”

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5 things to know about Packers’ stunning coaching move

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I like what the Packers did, and I like when they did it.

What would have been accomplished by letting Mike McCarthy lame-duck his way through the next four weeks, other than keeping the franchise’s 65-year streak of never making an in-season coaching change intact? Management knew McCarthy was getting whacked, and McCarthy would have had to be blind to not know. You don’t go 4-10-1 in your last 15 games, look as listless as the Packers have looked, watch Aaron Rodgers play borderline disinterested football, and think there’s some way to salvage an era gone bad. There wasn’t. It was just time.

Packers president Mark Murphy trumped the Hunt news two hours after the Pack’s embarrassing 20-17 loss to the two-win Cardinals. In the snow. Against the warmest-weather team in the NFL. Murphy made the first coaching change by the franchise during the season since Hugh Devore and Scooter McLean took over for Gene Ronzani—what, you don’t remember the Ronzani Era in Packer lore?—with two games left in 1953.

It was a mission of mercy.

“The 2018 seasons has not lived up to the expectations and standards of the Green Bay Packers,” Murphy said in a statement. “As a result, I made the difficult decision to relieve Mike McCarthy of his roles as head coach, effective immediately.”

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Five things I feel confident of this morning:

1. Aaron Rodgers was not involved in, or consulted about, the decision. There’s been speculation about a chilly relationship between McCarthy and Rodgers, and that chilly relationship affecting the production of the Green Bay offense. Possible; probable, I think. But football’s a production business. This was based on the Packers losing with more regularity than they had since Rodgers was a rookie in 2008. In Rodgers’ 37 starts since Christmas Day 2015, Green Bay is 18-18-1. Unacceptable.

2. Murphy and GM Brian Gutekunst, the deciders-in-chief, had to see how stale this team was getting. Time to hear a different message from a different coach. And Rodgers, for whatever reason, wasn’t playing like Rodgers. He wasn’t himself. In fact, in the first 11 games this year, Pro Football Focus had Rodgers on track to make the most throwaway passes since the analytics firm has been collecting data in 2006. His 47 throwaways means he’s dumping the ball away once every 10 throws, which no quarterbacks has done in the 13 years PFF has mined the passing numbers. The NFL average is once every 28 passes. Either he’s unhappy with the calls, feels too much pressure, or is giving up on some plays too soon—or a combination of those. That helped the Packers to a bizarre year in which, with a healthy Rodgers, they blew out only two of 12 foes. This is a very subjective statement, but it just doesn’t look like Rodgers is having much fun playing football.

3. The Packers are giving themselves a head start on their search, and I’m pretty sure they think McCarthy will be well-served by the same early start. Green Bay will be competing for a coach with Cleveland, Tampa Bay and the Jets at least, and maybe two or three other franchises. The Green Bay job will be highly desirable, because of the history—“I still get a thrill driving to the same place Vince Lombardi drove to for work,” McCarthy told me last year—and the quarterback. As for McCarthy, he could land in Cleveland with former Packers scout John Dorsey (they are not tight, but they are friends), and the Jets could want the guy who coached Brett Favre at the end and Aaron Rodgers at the beginning to mentor Sam Darnold. Having December off gives McCarthy a chance to recharge and prep for a round of early-January interviews. I don’t think McCarthy wanted this to happen now, because he’s a coach and wanted a chance to coach his way out of this. But coaching the next four weeks would have been (mostly) a frustrating daily reminder of how underachieving this team is, and would have given pause to prospective employers wondering why a team with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback stinks.

4. All things being equal, I believe the Packers would like to find a young offensive coach who could challenge and improve Rodgers. Sunday was Rodgers’ 35th birthday. In July, he told me: “I’d love to play till 40 … That’s my aim.” That gives an enterprising and imaginative coach five years, theoretically, to work with one of the greats. The list has been picked over in the last three years, with Doug Pederson, Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Matt Nagy and Frank Reich gone. The best guys left are probably Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Minnesota offensive coordinator John DeFillippo and maybe college candidates like David Shaw of Stanford (not likely to leave Palo Alto) and Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma—who could also get a look from Cleveland. Could some team try to match the magic of McVay with, say, a young quarterback mentor like Philly’s 30-year-old QB coach Press Taylor? Doubtful, but just as McVay was a highly speculative choice by the Rams, we could see another one. “Everyone’s looking for the next McVay,” one GM told me last month. It’s just that no one is sure who he is.

5. It wasn’t just a feel. The McCarthy decline, and Rodgers’ part in it, was factual. Over the last two seasons, PFF had McCarthy the league’s 36th-best play-caller out of 44 coaches. The complex formula had the passing game rated 22nd and 14th in the last two seasons. A layman could look at Green Bay’s passing offense and think it’s just not imaginative, at all. It’s stale. Compare it to, say, Chicago’s. On the biggest play of the fourth quarter in New Jersey on Sunday, Bears coach Matt Nagy called a reverse to Tarik Cohen, and a touchdown pass from Cohen to Anthony Miller that forced overtime against the Giants. That’s something the Packers need.

McCarthy deserves his due, and credit for lasting 13 years and making the playoffs nine times. He’s the longest-serving Green Bay coach since Curly Lambeau. He loved everything about the job and the place. Amazing, really, that he lasted four years longer than Vince Lombardi (nine years), and six years longer than Mike Holmgren (seven).

But even those who hadn’t been around the Packers could sense the end was coming. In her story for The MMQB last week about the Packers’ troubles, Kalyn Kahler quoted ESPN analyst Booger McFarland thusly on the relationship between Rodgers and McCarthy: “I find it very [unusual] that you get two people who really enjoy working together and enjoy being around each other, but you can’t sense or see that [they do]. I didn’t sense that from either Aaron or coach.”

The divorce should give the Packers a chance to find a new voice for Rodgers and a sputtering team. And McCarthy, still only 55, is a coach who wants another 10-year job. He’s a coach. He wants another shot. Both sides should get what they want in the next five weeks. The suddenness of Sunday’s decision was surprising, but not the decision itself. It’s best for the Packers, and best for McCarthy.

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Philip Rivers when he realized he missed a perfect passing day: “SHOOT!”

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When Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt came out of the locker room for the second half at the StubHub Center, he caught the stats up on the scoreboard. “19-19,” he saw next to Philip Rivers’ name.

“That’s not right,” he thought to himself. Whisenhunt thought he misread it. And he went out to coach the second half, not thinking of the supposedly faux 19 for 19.

But as the half went on, he discovered Rivers was indeed perfect … for 25 throws. Then the Chargers quarterback, on his last series of the game, was trying to avoid a sack when he threw the ball away toward running back Austin Ekeler. He finished 28 of 29, an NFL-record 96.6 percent accurate on the day. A few minutes after coach Anthony removed Rivers from the 45-10 rout of the Cardinals, Rivers realized he was one throw from perfection.

“I remember exactly what he said,” said Whisenhunt, who has coached Rivers for four years. “‘GOSH! The one I missed the guy had me on the leg! SHOOT!’“

That’s about as profane as the devoted Catholic gets.

“You could feel it today,” Whisenhunt told me from California. “He’s been playing at an incredible level for a while now. Remember—this started, really, in this week last year, when we played the Thanksgiving game at Dallas.” Rivers completed 82 percent that day, for 434 yards. In the 17 games since, he’s had the best year-plus of his life: 68.2 percent accuracy, 5,120 yards, a 37-9 touchdown-to-pick ratio, and a crazy 9.08 yards per attempt.

It’s one crazy coincidence that Rivers and the man who was let go to make way for him to play in 2006—Drew Brees—are playing this well so late in their careers. Brees turns 40 in six weeks. Rivers turns 37 in two weeks. And now Rivers leads the Chargers to a prime-time game at Pittsburgh on Sunday, another test in a long line of them for him and this Chargers team that’s 13-4 since last Thanksgiving. “Him and Ben [Roethlisberger] again,” said Whisenhunt. “It’s going to be fun. It always is.”

MORE: Peter King’s Week 12 FMIA column