Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Saints Nation: Sean Payton has Created a Winning Culture in New Orleans Thanks to His Willingness to Change

It hasn't been a smooth ride during 4 seasons in New Orleans for head coach Sean Payton, but one thing that's undeniable is that he was the right hire for the Saints back in 2006. Back then the Saints were wavering between Payton and Maurice Carthon as the heir to Jim Haslett, and who knows where the team would be with Carthon? Would Drew Brees even be the team's quarterback? While Payton has earned the label of an offensive genius, showcasing the top offense three out of four seasons in New Orleans (was #3 overall the other year), I've been most impressed with his adaptability. A lot of times when head coaches have success, they get hard headed about making changes. Having the humility to look at your failures and make necessary changes is as important as knowing what it takes to have success.

The perfect example of someone who fell into the trap of refusing to admit fault was former Saints head coach Jim Haslett. Haslett's very first team went 10-6, won the NFC South, and gave the Saints their first ever playoff victory over the Rams. After a dazzling first season, things looked on the up and up for the Saints. Successful defensive coordinator Ron Zook took off to Florida, though, and left his job in the hands of Haslett's mentor and loyal sidekick Rick Venturi. By all accounts Venturi was a respected football mind that Haslett valued greatly, but for whatever reason it never translated on the field. The Saints finished the Haslett era with several mediocre seasons and woeful defensive performances, and never reclaimed the magic they had in their first year.

Fast forward to the Sean Payton era, where things got off to the same rosy start. An NFC South division title, and the Saints' first ever trip to the NFC Championship. Like Haslett's teams, though, the next two seasons were plagued by abysmal defensive seasons behind coordinator Gary Gibbs which turned the previously top shot Saints into a mediocre team that couldn't stop anyone. The difference, unlike Haslett, is that Payton made a very difficult personal and professional decision that paid dividends this past offseason. He saw the mistakes he made in showcasing Reggie Bush as the primary runner, allowing Gary Gibbs to run the defense, getting rid of John Carney for a stronger leg, and trusting the eventual growth of struggling young players. So before 2009, Payton committed himself to improving the Saints' offensive balance and run game by giving Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell more reps, he fired Gary Gibbs in favor of defensive guru Gregg Williams, he brought back John Carney and developed a kicker we can trust in Garrett Hartley (getting rid of Olinde Mare and Martin Grammatica - no telling how long Haslett would have stuck with them as stubborn as he is), and he signed Darren Sharper despite his age to provide playmaking experience on the back end. Look how all those decisions have paid off. In short, he's transformed his squad from "mediocre" into the NFC's best team in one season. This is all because he was willing to make the decisions and sacrifices that Haslett was never humble enough to make. Sometimes installing a winning culture is about being open to criticism and change, because the NFL is competitive enough that you're not going to be successful long term by being stubborn. So while Sean Payton should be applauded and respected for his uncanny talent to design a premiere offense, I'm most thankful that the coach can recognize mistakes and act accordingly. Comparisons to Jim Haslett after this season can now die forever.