David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Nov. 25 QB Issue. Subscribe today!
BACK TO WORK after an uneventful bye week, Drew Brees sat down for a nice, quiet lunch with his linemen inside the Saints’ courtyard-style cafeteria. Halfway through the meal, however, TV monitors flashed with highlights from New Orleans’ Week 4 win over Miami. The 38-17 triumph over the then-undefeated Dolphins was an early-season benchmark for the Saints, who had spent the previous year mired in the Bountygate scandal. But as the clips rolled, Brees kept his gaze downward while his linemen began elbowing each other and pointing to the TV screens.
Saints coach Sean Payton had been miked up for the game, and the first 28 seconds of the highlights featured what is perhaps the rarest sight in pro football — not one but two warm, giggling sideline embraces between the head coach and his quarterback. PDAs between Brees and Payton have been something of a running joke around here since network cameras captured an intense embrace after Super Bowl XLIV that showed Brees grabbing fistfuls of Payton’s shirt and, depending on whom you ask, giving the coach a peck on the cheek.
So Brees pretty much knew what was coming next. After the second snuggle, right on cue, tackle Zach Strief leaned over, smiled and fake-grumbled, “Hey, that’s two more times than I’ve been hugged in eight years here.”
But really, the coach and the QB were just making up for lost time. Reunited after a disastrous season apart while Payton served a season-long suspension, the game’s most dynamic duo have the Saints back to setting historic standards for offensive execution and production.
“The history of professional football is one long connection between coaches and quarterbacks, and these two are in almost perfect continuity,” says ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, a friend of Payton’s since they coached together with the 1997 Eagles. “When I think of Vince Lombardi, I think of Bart Starr. When I think of Chuck Noll, I think of Terry Bradshaw. When I think of Tom Landry, I think of Roger Staubach. And now, when I think of Sean Payton, I think of Drew Brees. They are better together. And what they’ve been able to do this season? It’s pretty special.”
In New Orleans, they even have a word for it: redempSEAN.
IT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE now, but the first thing Brees and Payton did together in New Orleans was get lost.
In the spring of 2006, Brees was a free agent with few suitors, let go by San Diego after suffering a grotesque full tear of the labrum in his throwing shoulder. By the time he landed in New Orleans to meet with the Saints, Brees says, he desperately needed someone, anyone, to believe in him. He found that and more in Payton, whose first act as head coach was to gamble on conflicting medical reports and offer Brees a $60 million deal. He told Brees that he wanted him to help rebuild the franchise. “I knew the two of us, working together, could complete each other — and create greatness,” Payton wrote in his 2010 book, Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life. “My understanding. His skill.”
Payton’s ballsy wager turned out to be one of the greatest signings in free agent history. Since 2006, Brees, the MVP of Super Bowl XLIV, has led the NFL in passing yards, touchdowns and completions. Along the way, he has also set league records for passing yards in a season (5,476 in 2011), completion percentage (71.2 percent in 2011) and consecutive games with a TD pass (54). Says Mark Brunell, who spent 19 years in the NFL and served as a Saints backup QB in 2008 and ’09, “I always get asked: ‘Who’s the toughest guy you ever played with? Who’s the most competitive? Who’s the best player? The smartest player? The hardest worker?’ And my answer to all those is Drew Brees. This is a man in constant pursuit of greatness in every area of his life.”
Despite all that success, the 34-year-old Brees entered this, his 13th season since leaving Purdue, with a focus and intensity that borders on maniacal. It’s as if he still considers every early-morning wind sprint, every extra throwing session or every late-night film study recompense for the faith Payton alone showed in him back in 2006. “He believed in me,” Brees says, “when I didn’t even know if I could believe in myself.”
Although he could read quarterbacks, Payton wasn’t quite as proficient with a New Orleans road map. During that first visit, Payton took a wrong turn off I-10 and the pair ended up lost. But it was worth it. In the middle of their adventure, Brees realized he’d finally found a kindred spirit in Payton, a former All-America quarterback at Division I-AA Eastern Illinois, who at 5’11” — just an inch shorter than Brees — was deemed too small to play in the NFL. In 1988 Payton started coaching at the collegiate level and spent the next decade working his way up the ladder. By 2000 he was the Giants offensive coordinator, on the fast track to an NFL head-coaching job.
After a slow start in 2002, however, head coach Jim Fassel stripped Payton of his playcalling duties. After the season, Payton went to Dallas as quarterbacks coach, where he spent three years rebuilding his rep on Bill Parcells’ staff. By the time the Saints came calling in 2006, Payton had a chip on his shoulder as big as the one Brees carried. “So what you end up with in New Orleans are two great human beings who also want to kick everyone’s ass every time they step onto a football field because of what they’ve been through,” Gruden says. “What they’ve built here since is one of the most intricate, detailed, complicated and precise attacks ever seen.”
To create it, Payton and Brees worked as near equals. In New England, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have won three Super Bowls with a pleasant but businesslike relationship built around a clear church and state separation of talent and authority. In New Orleans, those walls never existed. Payton and Brees sat down and compared notes from their time in Dallas and San Diego, and they crafted the Saints’ playbook and all of the subsequent offensive game plans as partners.
The result has been revolutionary: a dynamic and highly adaptable scheme that’s designed, co-authored and edited each week by — get this — the guy who actually has to go out on Sunday and execute it. “Sean allowed me to have a lot of input into the offense,” Brees says. “He allowed me to take a lot of things that I was good at, things that were my strength and concepts that I liked from my previous offense, and install them into this offense. Everything we put in were things that fit me very well. So we kind of made a hybrid. We made it our own.”
In the end, the scheme works for the exact reason that their relationship does. Payton and Brees share many of the same core values, but what takes them and their offense to a higher level is the way their differences seem to perfectly complement each other. Like a good marriage, coaches and quarterbacks need a rock-solid foundation built on trust, mutual respect and consistent hard work … as well as the occasional flea-flicker. “On the field, the level of aggressiveness and risk-taking is identical between Drew and Sean,” says Strief, now in his eighth year alongside the two. “But off the field, yeah, I think Drew paints inside the lines a little better than Sean does.”
Brees has what people close to him say is an old-fashioned golden soul. On rare occasions, his meticulous, uncompromising approach can veer into the annoying, like the Boy Scout in class who, right before the bell on Friday, reminds the teacher that she forgot to assign homework for the weekend. Brees’ book, Coming Back Stronger, is peppered with self-help platitudes straight out of an airport hotel seminar about “unleashing the hidden power of adversity.” That’s not just book copy; that’s how Brees operates.
Payton is a master of intuition, perfectly comfortable operating in the margins and challenging the status quo (say, for example, the moral gray area of incentivizing the violence of football that put him in the middle of the Bountygate fiasco). Of course, the first step toward creating anything new or great is the willingness to question tradition, authority or both. That’s Payton, a coach who thinks and operates like a gunslinger quarterback with a $100 million contract in his back pocket. His only major flaw as a playcaller is his tendency to get too cute or complicated, to show the world just how smart and innovative he is. When that happens, though, his by-the-book quarterback is usually there to rein in the maverick coach.
Brees, on the other hand, is a $100 million quarterback who thinks and acts like an old-school coach, the kind of person who can’t stand leaving anything to chance. While others simply stretch before games, Brees goes through a series of intricate and complicated yoga maneuvers. It’s the ultimate window into vintage Brees: If there’s a competitive advantage to be found, he will find it and exploit it. Quietly. Respectfully. Politely. That’s Brees. In 2006, when then-Dolphins head coach Nick Saban passed on signing a damaged Brees, the quarterback called back to thank him for his interest.
Now contrast that with how Payton handles disappointment. During a conference call before the 2006 draft, Reggie Bush‘s representative told the Saints that the Heisman Trophy-winning running back didn’t want to play in New Orleans. Payton leaned toward the phone, screamed “F— you!” and hung up. Then he drafted Bush No. 2 overall anyway. Payton’s memoir is a fun, light read of loosely connected anecdotes about Kenny Chesney, the French Quarter, water parks, paintball tournaments, old friends with possible mob ties and bits of coaching brilliance, like his advice to untested Saints kicker Garrett Hartley in the 2009 NFC championship game. In overtime, Payton pointed beyond the goalpost and said, “How ’bout you hit that fleur-de-f—in’-lis?”
In some ways, Payton and Brees are the classic combination of sinner and saint that has always flourished, side by side, in the Big Easy. Last season, without Payton, a run game or a serviceable defense, everything fell upon Brees. He put up a valiant effort, as well as 5,177 passing yards, but Brees could never fully relax and get in sync, playing too tight and pressing under all the expectations. His 24 individual turnovers (19 interceptions, five fumbles) were more than 13 entire teams had.
There was no release valve for all the pressure he was feeling, no confidant to confirm or challenge what he was seeing on the field or in the film room and, especially, no devil on his shoulder telling him, on third and two, to chuck a bomb toward that fleur-de-f—in’-lis. “It was refreshing to walk in here in mid-April and there he was,” Brees says. “We just got right back to work. It was all about football, and it’s been that way ever since. Sean and I have a great relationship. We spend a lot of time together throughout the week in preparation because when we get out to the field, we want to be in a position where I’m seeing what he’s seeing and we’re able to anticipate each other’s actions and thoughts. It’s really as if we haven’t missed any time.”
It’s almost as if Drew and Sean have one brain working together. It’s sort of amazing.
— Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael
Payton’s return has restored the kind of coach-to-quarterback synergy that once again allows the Saints to operate more like a motion offense in basketball: a living, breathing scheme capable of attacking every inch of the field, one that, instead of changing week to week, morphs in real time based on how the defense reacts.
Take, for example, Week 6 in New England, when early on the Patriots disrupted Brees’ precision with physical, tight man-to-man coverage. New Orleans went three and out on its first series, and before the punt was even in the air, Brees was on the bench surrounded by offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Payton and backup QB Luke McCown, reviewing pictures of the Patriots defense. Looking like a professor critiquing a student thesis, Brees studied each page intently for several minutes while pointing and shouting out ideas to Payton, who in turn responded by either crossing off or circling corresponding calls on the giant play sheet he carries on the sideline. It’s not uncommon in these situations for Payton to have a play or a concept on the tip of his tongue, only to have Brees complete the thought for him by yelling out the exact playcall he was pondering — or vice versa. “It’s almost as if Drew and Sean have one brain working together,” Carmichael says. “It’s sort of amazing.”
Without Payton a year ago, Brees and the Saints lacked the ability to adjust and recover and ended the season 7-9. But in New England, on the Saints’ next possession, the coach and the QB answered with a near-perfect nine-play, 73-yard touchdown drive. Near the goal line, they expertly used the Patriots’ overly aggressive man coverage against them by calling a pick play at the line that resulted in a TD pass from Brees to little-used running back Travaris Cadet, who was wide open.
Afterward, Brees trotted back to the Saints’ sideline, where, well, you can guess what happened next.
- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine FlemFile columnist for ESPN.com.
- Has written more than 30 cover stories for SI and ESPN.
- Author of “Noah’s Rainbow” (a father’s memoir) and “Breaker Boys” (stolen 1925 NFL title).