Shortly after he took charge of the New Orleans Saints in 2006, coach Sean Payton identified the franchise he wanted to emulate: the New England Patriots, three-time Super Bowl champions under Bill Belichick.
The results of that decision are plain to see. Payton has his own Super Bowl title and, en route to that championship, his Saints toppled Belichick’s Patriots on the only occasion the coaches have met in a regular-season game.
Similarities between the organizations persist more than seven years after his hiring, but Payton insists the Saints can only hope to one day be as great as New England. He alluded to their five AFC championships in 14 years under Belichick, compared to the Saints’ one NFC championship.
“That would be a goal, to win the championships and win as many championship games as they have,” Payton said of the Patriots (4-1), whom the Saints (5-0) face at 3:25 p.m. Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. “You aspire to put yourselves in a position to play in the important games, but ... we are behind.”
Belichick doesn’t typically make it a point to lavish opposing coaches with praise, but he heaped it onto Payton this week.
“Sean does a real good job of keeping the defense off balance, and he can really attack pretty much every inch of the field,” he said. “They just have a lot of different weapons, a lot of different ways to attack you, obviously a lot of good players, a good scheme — they’re well-coached.”
They both worked under Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, and Payton and Belichick got to know each other at the 2006 Pro Bowl. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Belichick ought to feel utterly flattered by the coach who viewed the Patriots as a blueprint.
Payton and Belichick have the highest winning percentages in their respective conferences: .661 and .762. Their teams have the two best road records in the NFL since 2006: the Patriots at 44-15 and the Saints at 35-23. The Patriots have the best regular-season home record (36-6) since 2008, and the Saints are just three spots behind at 32-11.
Payton and Belichick are kindred spirits with the future Hall of Famers they count on at quarterback, but they’ve also populated their rosters with players in whom only they saw the potential. A conspicuous example for Payton is Marques Colston, the 2006 seventh-round pick out of Hofstra who’s the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns.
With Belichick, there was running back Danny Woodhead, an undrafted player who joined the Patriots after being cut by the New York Jets. He helped New England get to the Super Bowl in 2011 and left for a two-year, $3.5 million contract from the San Diego Chargers.
Likewise, Belichick and Payton have emerged as strong as ever from personal and professional turmoil. Belichick has led the Patriots to two Super Bowl appearances since he got divorced and was accused of authorizing the illegal videotaping of Jets defensive coaches as they signaled to players on the field.
Last week, the Saints won at Chicago’s Soldier Field for the first time in four tries to cement themselves as a Super Bowl contender five games into Payton’s return from a year-long league suspension in the wake of the bounty scandal. He served that suspension while going through a divorce.
That Payton and Belichick responded so decisively to upheaval shows how solid their organizations’ foundations are, said ex-NFL coach Herm Edwards, an analyst for ESPN.
“They put things in compartments,” Edwards said. “People that understand how to be successful ... put things away. They don’t let it affect something else.”
Even Belichick — famously stoic and curt with reporters — admits the parallels between him and Payton aren’t out-of-touch media observations. When the Patriots and Saints have practiced together in recent preseasons, it’s been seamless, Belichick said.
“The things we want to emphasize in practice, they want to emphasize,” he explained. “The ability to do things and work together because of common philosophies ... in terms of approach to the game, practicing, preparing, working against each other, those things were very easy with the Saints.”
Payton, whom few journalists would call warm, expressed similar sentiments.
“(Belichick) has been someone certainly that I look up to,” he said. “That opportunity for me to just spend some time with Bill has always been helpful and a positive experience.”
For the Saints, an even more positive experience involving the Patriots came when New Orleans stomped New England at home 38-17 in 2009. The Saints improved to 11-0 with the win, and it convinced them they could lift the Lombardi Trophy a little more than two months later because Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots were “the team of the decade,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Brees said that’s still the case, and a victory Sunday would be equally emboldening.
“This would be a huge accomplishment for us,” he said. “We know this is going to be a difficult task, but one we have to step up to.”