Sean Payton is a hard man. At least he looks the part most of the time.
He has to. New Orleans is a laissez-faire city, but laissez-faire doesn’t win football games. Winning in the unforgiving crucible of the NFL requires an unsparing, unsentimental attitude. It requires someone who demands the most from his team, who pushes and prods his players to give more than even they think they can.
Sometimes, like Sunday against the Saints’ archrivals, the Atlanta Falcons, it’s just barely enough. The old world met the new in the final breathless minute of the game as rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro tipped a fourth-and-goal Matt Ryan pass that Saints elder statesman Roman Harper cradled as he fell to the end zone, allowing New Orleans to escape with a 23-17 victory.
After a year off the sideline because of the Bountygate scandal, it seemed as if Payton, the Saints and the Falcons were caught in a time loop.
Once again there was Payton, marching most of the way across the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf to shake hands with Atlanta coach Mike Smith after yet another Saints win over the despised Falcons.
“It was as if no time has passed,” said quarterback Drew Brees, the physical expression of Payton’s offensive artistry. “That’s what we do. It was business as usual.”
Payton is the Falcons’ Kryptonite. Since he arrived in New Orleans, the Saints are 12-3 against Atlanta. Even when he was persona non Superdoma last season, the Saints were struggling to go 7-9 and the Falcons were driving toward the NFC’s top seed with a 13-3 record, New Orleans split with Atlanta. The Saints might have swept The Birds if Brees hadn’t suffered through one of the worst games of his pro career — a touchdown-less, five-interception debacle that still only resulted in a 23-13 defeat.
The current trend of the rivalry is such that you have to think the Falcons are both eager for revenge and dreading their short week Thursday night rematch with the Saints in Atlanta on Nov. 21.
The Saints may have wished for a Thursday night opener against the Falcons to go ahead and get their Reunion Tour 2013 season underway.
A 3-1 preseason marked by encouraging highlights of Payton and Brees’ offensive handiwork and an improved 3-4 defense under new coordinator Rob Ryan was prelude to a particularly businesslike, ruthlessly efficient week of practice at Saints HQ.
Even under normal circumstances, Payton suffers no fools and is entertained by little frivolity. Yes, he did step out of character in the offseason to film a commercial for a local bank in which he dines on roasted falcon, but by this past week the Saints head man was operating behind an icy glare that could have cut glass.
“He takes his intensity to another level,” inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “He’s definitely a competitor. He was talking crap to us in practice and, as a defensive player, I love that.”
Despite his laser-like focus on the Falcons, Payton took one last pregame moment to show he’s not all microprocessors and wires and servos — or a Vulcan. He went out onto the field with ALS-stricken former Saints special teams star Steve Gleason and, hand in hand, they led Saints fans in an emotional pregame cheer.
Then it was back to business. All business.
“He’s a little … different,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “He brings so much passion and respect. On game day, he turns into a different person, and that carries over to everyone.”
That carryover is what the Saints sorely missed last season. They needed someone to hold them accountable, to hold their cleats to the fire, to demand attention to detail and be there to bring retribution down on the helmet of the player who did not pay heed. They needed the fine points like in practice this week, when Payton had his staff blare loud music toward the field and insist his players tighten the huddle and make sure the right call was made.
“He was intense today,” outside linebacker Junior Galette said. “It’s a team effort, not just one man, but he’s the head coach. He leads, and we feel it. It trickles down to us.”
The trickle-down theory produced a victory for the Saints on Sunday that was almost like a 2-for-1 sale in its importance. An NFC South game at home, with the chance to start the season on top and put the dangerous Falcons — along with the Buccaneers and Panthers — in an early hole couldn’t be underestimated.
It’s only one game, but there’s an urgency with Payton back with the Saints. A vibe that says New Orleans is on track to being a winner again, a potentially hard reality for the rest of the division.
See what safety Roman Harper has to same about the game on this video.