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.
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.”