Payton doesn't hold back in book chronicling Saints' Super Bowl run
Sean Payton tells priceless story about Bill Belichick in new book
Payton also goes into detail on the celebrating the Saints did after the Super Bowl
Payton confident vicodin scandal, Super Bowl hangover won't be issue in 2010
Of all the anecdotes and revealing behind-the-scenes snapshots that Super Bowl-winning Saints head coach Sean Payton sprinkled throughout a newly published memoir of his time in New Orleans, the one I can't get over is his detailed description of how he transformed into a certain hoodie-wearing head coach from New England one week last season.
Payton might as well have labeled that chapter "Being Bill Belichick,'' because before his 10-0 Saints were to play host to the vaunted Patriots in Week 12, their biggest measuring stick game of the season, Payton transformed himself into Belichick in order to give his team a cold-eyed assessment of where its weaknesses were -- from the master himself. Can you imagine? Think Lombardi, Landry, Noll or even Belichick himself would ever go that route? And then write about it in colorful fashion?
"Let me tell you, I do a great Belichick,'' Payton writes in "Home Team, Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life,'' which was released Tuesday, not quite five months after the biggest win in the 43 years of New Orleans franchise history. "I knew I could go into the team meeting on Wednesday and point out to the players some of the things we could improve on to win. But rather than me doing that, why not have Bill Belichick come visit our team?
"Why not give our team the chance to hear what Bill Belichick would be telling the Patriots that very morning? I could stand up there and criticize our team. But would the message be clearer if the other coach pointed out our flaws to us?''
And this wasn't some 30-second mimicking that Payton played for laughs in front of his team, either. Oh, no. He worked at it, watching film of a Belichick interview to get his tone and mannerisms down right, dressing the part, and even talking to current Saints and ex-Patriots Randall Gay, Heath Evans and David Thomas to quiz them on how Belichick would dissect New Orleans in preparing his Patriots to play that coming Monday night in the Superdome.
"I made a careful note of how he scrunched up his face and how he tilted his head,'' Payton writes of Belichick. "I became Bill Belichick. The hair greased over to the side and darkened. The blue hoodie with the New England Patriots logo. The khakis and the tennis shoes.
"To get the voice right, I went on NFL.com Tuesday night and listened to Mike Lombardi interviewing Bill. Listened three or four times until I had that flat, tightly wound, slightly psycho-sounding monotone exactly right. And we made a little film. It was me as Bill Belichick, speaking to the Patriots about all the things that sucked about the New Orleans Saints, cutting away to video of every imaginable Saints screw-up.''
Here's Payton, as Belichick, scouting the Saints: "Tell you what, guys -- it's one thing about this New Orleans Saints team. This head coach, wherever he's been, they've turned the ball over. They've turned it over in the Pro Bowl in '06, when I was (coaching against) him. They don't take care of the ball.''
And on it went, as Payton went down his roster, position by position, picking apart his team in the role of the opposing coach, for more than a half-hour, staying in character the entire time in order to give his club a different view of its own vulnerabilities. And after maybe 30 seconds of laughter at the sight of Payton as Mr. Bill, the room went dead silent as the Saints head coach delivered his searing message in the guise of the no-nonsense Patriots head coach.
The rest, of course, is history. The Saints beat the Patriots impressively, 38-17, on the last night in November, improving to 11-0 and for the first time forcing everyone to view them as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. For Payton, the exercise of channeling Belichick was a risky but successful move that ensured he had the full attention of his team as the stakes of their once-in-a-lifetime season rose with each passing week.
"When you do something like this, you step out of the norm,'' Payton wrote. "You deliver a message that will connect with the team in a much deeper and more profound way. It doesn't always work. As a coach, sometimes you swing, and maybe hit a foul ball or you miss....Then sometimes you make solid contact. And every once in a while, you just hit one right out of the park. That's the truth. And this was one of those. Hit it right out of the park!''
I caught up with Payton on the phone Tuesday afternoon in New York, as he was hustling from one media interview to the next as part of the book's launch. The first thing I wanted to know was whether he knew if Belichick was aware of his mimicry yet? Had he talked to Belichick about it and what was the stoic one's response?
"I don't know that he knows about it, no,'' Payton said. "But I guess he will at some point here in the near future. Certainly he knows how much I respect him, because since the day we started in New Orleans in 2006 we've talked about what New England has done and how that program is the one you want to model yours around in the NFL. He's the best in our business, and it's just good business to look at what works. I really do believe that imitation is the greatest form of flattery.
"It was really just a unique and different sort of teaching tool that I thought might work. But it needed to be really good, because nothing's worse than a bad impersonation. So I had to really hit it.''
You know what should be fun? Payton and his Saints actually spend a couple days working out with the Patriots in training camp in Foxboro this summer, before playing them at Gillette Stadium in the preseason. I could be wrong, but I imagine Belichick will find Payton's imitation very flattering and I think he'll enjoy and respect the coaching creativity behind the idea, all except maybe the "greased over'' hair thing. Maybe it'll even spawn a bunch of Bill impersonators around the league, not that the likes of Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini don't already qualify.
I've read plenty of books by coaches cashing in on a newly won Super Bowl ring, but Payton's is more entertaining and enlightening than any I can recall. As the Belichick story shows, he's not afraid to reveal the juiciest of inside the locker room nuggets, and it's a great read when Payton's recalling his bizarre series of 2004 head coaching interviews with Oakland's Al Davis -- eating cold McDonald's cheeseburgers and coleslaw from KFC -- detailing the breakdown of his working relationship with Giants head coach Jim Fassel in New York in 2002, or admitting how he nearly screwed up his gutsy call of an onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl against the Colts (nearly kicking toward the Indy sideline, where he feared a scrum for the ball would not be ruled in favor of his Saints).
"I wanted the book to be real,'' Payton told me. "I didn't want the cliché of a coach writing about how to be a successful leader in today's world. If we were going to do this, I wanted it to be different that way. People want to know about all the little things that go on within a football team. The last thing I wanted to do was write about winning on the field and winning in life. That's not me.
"Beth (Payton's wife) said the only problem was it sounds like you're drinking beer the whole time in the book, and I said, well, I guess that comes with winning the Super Bowl.''
To that I say, if the shoe fits, try it on and lace it up. Payton has never been one to pretend he doesn't enjoy a cold one from time to time, and he basically admits in the book that he came close to blowing off the Monday morning 8:30 day-after-the-Super Bowl winning-coach news conference because he was somewhere between way hung over and still legally drunk. He compared his condition that day to the movie "The Hangover'' and also wrote about being "seven Bud Lights in'' when he took to the stage with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin at the city's Super Bowl victory parade.
"I don't think what I wrote will be received in a bad way (by the league office),'' Payton said, when I asked him if he was concerned about any blowback from the NFL. "I don't think it's edgy. I think it was all in a very responsible fashion. Who are we kidding? It was our team's Super Bowl after-party. When you win that game, the best part of it all is hanging out with the people you know and love. It's almost like a wedding reception with friends and family.
"But at the end of the day, I wasn't going to blow off the coach's press conference. That wasn't going to happen. But yeah, it's fun to talk about it at 2:30 in the morning, saying let's just pay the fine and keep having fun.''
Nobody has reveled more in a Super Bowl victory, or for longer, than the Saints, their fans, and the beleaguered and resilient city of New Orleans. But for Payton and the Saints organization, it hasn't of course been entirely a five-month-long magic carpet ride. Two months ago, ex-Saints security director Geoff Santini sued the team, alleging the team tried to cover up the abuse of the prescription painkiller Vicodin by two senior members of the organization, later revealed to be assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt and Payton.
The suit has since been withdrawn and the two sides have entered the arbitration process, but that doesn't mean the potential trouble is over. Payton continues to stand behind the statement he issued shortly after the news broke, which said, "I have never abused or stolen Vicodin or any other medication.'' He has added in subsequent media interviews that he always had a prescription for any Vicodin he did use.
I asked Payton if the Vicodin controversy has taken any of the luster off his triumphant offseason, and if he feared the saga could loom over and potentially spoil his team's 2010 season, as it prepares to defend its championship.
"No, but certainly when something like that comes up, you handle it while realizing that part of it is something that comes with learning to deal with success and winning,'' Payton said. "You do become a bigger target and in this case you're dealing with an ex-employee who has an agenda of sorts. It hasn't taken away from our celebration, because we've been able to deal with both the larger and the smaller distractions. As we go further in the arbitration process, more specifics about this case will be known. For now I've released a statement and it's still in arbitration at this point.''
At the heart of Payton's book is the story of how the Saints and the city and region they represent were cast into a totally unique situation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That simultaneous comeback of the city and the team was the backdrop to the Saints' memorable Super Bowl season, but now the challenge for Payton and his club is finding a way to follow up on the NFL's mountaintop experience. Can the Saints avoid the post-Super Bowl hangover that befell the Steelers last season, or will they be the latest champion to struggle with the bar of expectation being set so high?
I asked Payton to tell me why his team would be different from most recent champions, and if he'd be surprised if the story of the 2010 Saints turns out to be the familiar saga of a club that grew fat, happy and content with its success of last year.
"I would say yes, that would surprise me,'' he said. "That really would. I clearly appreciate the challenges you have as the defending champion, starting with how late the last season ended and what that does to the length of your offseason. But the biggest challenges come internally, finding that balance between being proud of your success and being focused on improving and staying ahead, staying on top.
"I do think we're going to be helped by having the right kind of locker room and the right leadership, the right makeup of guys. They understand how we got here the first time and what it takes.''
Payton's new book is a great reminder of how the long-downtrodden Saints got to the Super Bowl and pray tell, even won it. What it took from him and his players was some pretty innovative and at times inspired football. Now comes the even harder part. Just ask Bill Belichick. He's the last NFL head coach to manage a Super Bowl repeat. We're about to find out just how far Payton's gift for imitation extends.
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