NEW ORLEANS — It is easy to think the worst humbling of Sean Payton’s career came six years ago, when the Bountygate scandal erupted and he was suspended for a year, exiled to Dallas to coach his son’s football team. And to listen to Payton now — the defiance, the supreme self-confidence — it is easy to see how that affected him.
He takes great delight in being a marionette master now, going so far this past week as to coach up fans of his Saints, who will pack the Superdome tight on Sunday with the NFC championship on the line against the Rams.
“What’s important for our fan base is understanding when that crowd noise needs to begin differently this week than normal weeks,” Payton said. “That crowd noise needs to begin prior to 15 seconds [on the play clock]. It needs to begin just as that last play finished. You get 65-70 snaps of that crowd noise earlier than normal, and louder than normal … it’s difficult.”
He said all this with a straight face.
Drew Brees might be the most popular man in all of Louisiana, but Payton is right behind him. Just the hint that the Cowboys might think about making a play for him dominated a news cycle in the Bayou. He has become a local treasure in the French Quarter, and should he win two more games in the next three weeks, he will be a shoo-in for Canton.
Which makes it all the more remarkable to remember the time in his career when Payton was really humbled, when he was publicly shamed. Payton was the offensive coordinator for the 2000 Giants, who made a beautiful late-season dash for the Super Bowl. He was the man calling the plays during the 41-0 crushing of the Vikings in that season’s NFC Championship, which was one of the two or three greatest moments in the history of old Giants Stadium.
Payton was a rising star, and he was proud to share stories of sleeping in the office many nights, searching for an edge, dreaming up plays and schemes and digesting game film in huge quantities. All of that, however, came to a crashing halt on the day before Halloween 2002. The Giants were scuffling along at 3-4. Head coach Jim Fassel — who had made his own reputation as a dynamic play-caller — was feeling some heat. He called Payton into his office.
And he knee-capped him. He took away the play-calling.
“When something needs to be done, to shake things up, I will make the changes,” Fassel said at the time. “I never have been shy about jumping right in. I’m not going to sit still and watch us score one touchdown per game. I’m not going to do it.”
Payton was 38 years old. He’d been on the NFL fast track, and now he was being benched. And he wasn’t afraid to say how angry he was with the demotion.
“There are certain people whose heads are on a different plane than others,” Payton said. “It’s always been a head coach, quarterback, coordinator, that’s part of the deal. I take full responsibility for what we’ve done on offense.”
Then he paused, squinted, and shook his head.
“If it were to be done, would I agree with it?” Payton asked. “No.”
But it got worse. Fassel really did fix the moribund offense, and the Giants finished the season on a 7-2 run, became a genuine offensive force before blowing a huge lead in San Francisco in the playoffs — though they did pile up 38 points in that game.
Bill Parcells rescued Payton at season’s end, brought him to Dallas as quarterbacks coach (where he coaxed an almost unbelievably productive year out of Quincy Carter) and later offensive coordinator. By 2006 New Orleans hired him as head coach. In his fourth year, the Saints went 13-3 and stunned the Colts in Super Bowl.
Earlier this year, in a rare reflective moment, Payton said, “There is really only one way to be successful in this game no matter what your role — player, coach, executive: You have to believe. Because if you don’t believe you can do the job. Why should anyone else believe you?”
We saw that with Payton. We see that with Payton. All the way to the doorstep of the Hall of Fame.