METAIRIE, La. — He had been sharing his thoughts for more than 90 minutes, proudly providing an "MTV Cribs"-style tour of the New Orleans Saints’ newly revamped training facility and opening up about topics ranging from his future in the Crescent City to the lingering effects of The Missed Call Heard Round The World — especially the latter.
Now, as he sat in his office on a Friday afternoon last month sipping on a Red Bull Total Zero, Sean Payton wanted to make something abundantly clear about last January’s cruel officiating gaffe that likely cost his team a chance to play for a championship, and his voice rose accordingly. "Here’s the thing," Payton said. "I want to make sure — like, I think there’s this perception that we keep complaining or bitching about it. And honestly, we haven’t at all."
If Payton, now in his 13th season as the Saints’ head coach, has done his best to move past the voodoo-curse-level bad luck that befell his team in the NFC Championship Game, which ended with an overtime defeat to the Los Angeles Rams, the rest of the football-watching world hasn’t made it easy.
As the NFL’s 100th season kicked off last week, fans and media analysts were still adjusting to the rules change provoked by the controversy, with offensive and defensive pass interference calls — and non-calls — now included in replay review. And with the Saints (1-0) heading to L.A. for a rematch with the Rams (1-0) at the Coliseum on Sunday, all of those psychic scabs will be ripe for the picking.
Payton gets it. He expects it. If anything, the uproar provoked by the drama that played out last January in the Superdome — when Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman plowed into receiver Tommylee Lewis well before the ball arrived, but the flag that would have allowed the Saints to drain the clock and kick a chip-shot field goal to break a tie on the final play of regulation stayed in the back judge’s pocket — has been a source of comfort.
"It really validates how poor the miss was," he said. "It was probably one of the worst mistakes in the history of officiating."
In any sport?
Payton and his longtime partner in offensive artistry, future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, have tried valiantly to let go of the sudden and painful end to their 2018 season, just as they did a little more than a year earlier, when what looked like a dramatic, come-from-behind playoff victory fell prey to the Minnesota Miracle.
That Divisional Round defeat to the Vikings was tough to stomach. Getting shafted out of a Super Bowl last January, at home, in a game they’d led 13-0? Well, that was a haymaker to the gut.
"I think everybody was in a pretty deep depression there for a while — which is understandable," Brees recalled. "It’s probably one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had as an athlete. We’ll just leave it at that. Does that sting ever really go away? No, I don’t think so. I mean, there are defining moments throughout my career that just torment me a little bit, but it’s also what drives me. And unfortunately, that heartbreak is just part of the process at times."
Seldom has a major professional sports franchise swallowed such a sobering double dose of heartbreak in back-to-back years. That the Saints successfully bounced back from the Minnesota Miracle to earn the NFC’s No. 1 seed in 2018 was a testament to their resilience. Now, with Brees having turned 40, they’re determined to prop up what’s left of their championship window and steel themselves for another run — one which got off to a promising and dramatic start Monday night at the Superdome.
And make no mistake: Ten years removed from hoisting the franchise’s first and only Lombardi Trophy, Payton and Brees know this current New Orleans team, at least on paper, is good enough to do it again. The Saints have most of their key players back from 2018, many of them ascending young standouts, and the addition of veteran tight end Jared Cook could help Payton’s offense evoke memories of the Jimmy Graham heyday.
Now 55, and seven years removed from a season-long banishment in the wake of a bounty scandal, Payton is in a good place, and he has assumed the unlikely role of sympathetic figure. Come January, if the Saints are once again in position to reach the Super Bowl, you can bet that legions of impartial observers will be in their corner, if only because of the widespread conviction that they got hosed against the Rams.
"Honestly, you go through the whole winter and spring and summer and jump in an Uber, get in a cab, go to a hotel and the guy from room service can’t believe it," Payton said. "Like, I’m in Turks and Caicos, and my driver stops the car to look back and say, ‘I cannot believe …’ So the point I’m making is, (there are) a thousand reminders: ‘I know you’ve probably heard this, but I cannot believe what happened.’ And it’s all good. It kind of is what it is."
At the Annual League Meeting in March, Payton, a member of the NFL’s Competition Committee, also felt a surge of support. Though conventional wisdom suggested that a significant rules change pertaining to replay review of pass interference calls and non-calls was highly unlikely, there was a widespread desire among coaches to do so, resulting in a 31-1 vote to implement the eventual proposal on a one-year basis.
To Payton, it was a clear statement that a repeat of the on-the-field officiating oversight that probably cost his team a Super Bowl berth was unacceptable, and he used a rather extreme analogy to illustrate his point.
"Well look," he said, "in the league meetings, there’s enough smart guys in that room — 32 owners, coaches, GMs — that sit in there and (say) let’s agree that if you don’t do a thing, then you essentially say, ‘Hey, the next Katrina that comes, it’s going to flood, and why would you expect different results?’ And if you’re comfortable with that, then, OK. But, I mean, in other words, that can’t happen again."
Payton foresees other eventual changes which, he believes, will help shore up officiating, especially at the most crucial moments. He’d like to see an end to the all-star crew model in the playoffs and instead keep regular crews together for postseason games.
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His analogy: "If you and I meet on a Friday and go play golf, there’s a good chance most of our round is going to be exchanging pleasantries, getting to know each other, human nature. And then if we play every Friday for the last five years, at some point we’re going to see something and call bulls—. There’s a comfort level you have, a confidence level being around someone. So, when you put a young official with a veteran and the veteran doesn’t have quite the same angle — the young official’s got a great angle; he’s got our angle — and all of a sudden the call’s made and the veteran is ‘No, no no, no, no’ … at that very moment, human nature kicks in, and you acquiesce. It’s happened in airplane crashes, where the young co-pilot does not want to step on the pilot, out of respect. One of the planes that went down, they were able to gather the information and they knew the co-pilot knew (that what the pilot was doing was wrong) — and yet … So, that’s a bit extreme. But my point is it’s much easier to disagree with someone you work with on a regular basis than with someone you just met and are working with for the first time ever."
Payton also believes the move toward hiring full-time officials will accelerate, with a centralized, day-to-day operation, although the program was put on hiatus in 2019 as the league continues labor discussions with the Referees Association. "The amount of hours we spend, up ’til 2 a.m. with the game plans — it’s hard when we’re still the only sport that doesn’t have 100 percent full-time officials," he said. "It’s hard to think that these guys, a lot of them are going back to their jobs on Monday. I don’t think a lot of your readers are aware of that. And look, there’s going to be a point where the officials for the NFL (live in the same place). If you’re in the Navy, you’re going to live in San Diego. And if you’re in the wine business, you’re going to be in Napa. And I think that eventually is where it’ll get to."
In the meantime, Payton is focusing on what he can control, and not dwelling on how strange it is that he’d suffer two such painful playoff eliminations in as many years.
"What’s weirder (would be if) you’re not in the postseason and you’re not of any relevance," he said. "Because there’s 20 teams — you and I know this — that have no chance of winning the Super Bowl (in a given season). Now, they can win on Sunday. But they’re dysfunctional. (Sometimes) change takes place and now the Rams are a contender. You try to stay one of those teams."
And Payton is quick to point out that every team coming off a postseason disappointment — including the Rams and coach Sean McVay, whose offense fizzled in a Super Bowl LIII defeat to the New England Patriots — is challenged by the circumstance.
"What’s harder to recover from?" Payton asked. "That (NFC Championship Game) loss, or the Rams’ Super Bowl loss scoring three points? In other words, there’s a difference when you feel like someone took something from you.
"As you get older, you become an expert on really focusing on the things that you can control, because you begin to be smarter with your energy. When you’re younger, sometimes you expend energy on things that, you’re like, ‘Ah, you’re not changing anything here.’ But this is a good group, a hungry group. And yeah, you work off the chip on the shoulder a little bit, which is healthy."
It helps that Brees, in his 19th season, is still willing and able to shoulder the load. Like 42-year-old Tom Brady, the man seems to be a freak of nature who defies every prior conception of a quarterback’s career lifespan. Both Brees and Payton say there is no sign of a drop-off in his physical skills, and his season-opening performance against the Texans (32 for 43, 370 yards, two TDs, one interception and a game-winning drive) presented no counterargument.
For much of the past decade, there was a sense in NFL circles that Brees might outlast Payton in New Orleans. There were rampant rumors that Payton wanted to leave for another job — and, specifically, that he’d join forces with Jerry Jones and become the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he was once an assistant.
Currently in Year 4 of the five-year, $45 million contract extension he signed in the spring of 2016, Payton sounds pretty attached to the Crescent City.
"This is home," he said. "I have a house here. I’m here full-time. Every year, we do more (to upgrade the training facility)."
And what about the whispers that he’d try to leave for Dallas, or another locale? "I think if it ends, it means no one’s paying attention, and you’re not winning."
History would suggest that Payton has many more victories in his future. Brees is in a much more tenuous position. Given that he likely doesn’t have many more chances to capture another championship, last January’s defeat may have been even more jolting to the quarterback. Yet like Payton, he’s determined not to dwell on the disappointment and is driven to deliver in its wake.
"I mean, listen — I could sit here for an hour and talk about just how devastating it was," Brees said in August. "And yet, is there anything I can do about it? There’s not a darn thing I can do about it. And so, if I allow it to prevent me from moving forward, to accomplishing what I feel like is out there to still accomplish — shame on me.
"So, I’m not going to let that happen. I’ll try to use it as fuel for something more positive, just like we did the year before with the Minnesota deal, and you move on."
On Sunday, he’ll try to lead the Saints to victory in L.A. against a formidable foe that can’t help but scare up emotional scar tissue on the visiting sideline. Payton, Brees and the Saints won’t be crowd favorites at the Coliseum, but they will have a lot of support from otherwise-neutral outsiders who admire their resilience and would appreciate a redemptive championship run.
As for the Football Gods — well, are they truly neutral this time around, or do they owe the Saints something after back-to-back postseason smackdowns?
"I’m kind of a realist," Payton said. "I believe that they only owe us what we’re going to take."
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.
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