METAIRIE, La. - Alvin Kamara’s theory about his head coach might help explain how the New Orleans Saints vaulted over most every obstacle in their path lately.
Sprinkle some doubt into the mix. Say a hurricane displaces the team, forcing it to play just one true home game in the first seven weeks of a season. Maybe the future Hall of Fame quarterback breaks a thumb in one season and fractures every other rib in another. Or for the hell of it just yank a half dozen Pro Bowl caliber players from the lineup for five games.
Now watch Sean Payton show how much that doubt is worth.
“He likes proving people wrong,” Kamara said. “He loves it. Like, he likes that a-ha moment, where it’s like, 'Oh, they said this, but — a-ha — we proved them wrong.'”
The Saints (3-2) will face the Seattle Seahawks (2-4) Monday looking like a much more complete version of themselves. The long list of key players on injured reserve began to shrink and the team is nearly a month removed from its forced evacuation to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Finally, things are starting to feel close to normal.
But the most important part is that, for the third straight season, Payton’s Saints did not fold when things were decidedly abnormal.
"Persevere,” said quarterback Jameis Winston. “That's it. That's just this team. That's coach Payton.”
Payton is the head coach, which means Payton is not the one making throws or catches or tackles. His impact is limited to the game plans he can devise with the players at hand and the emotion he can foster within his team.
But times like these are when Payton’s impact on the Saints are most clearly pronounced.
“I would start with Sean’s leadership,” said tight ends coach Dan Roushar, now in his ninth season on Payton's staff. “Here’s the one thing I’ve always appreciated about him: In the toughest and most difficult times, he embraces those moments. His ability to convey that message consistently to the players, to challenge the players, to prepare the players, is reflected.”
Human nature tends to make people gravitate toward a reason for things not to work out when the circumstances are not ideal. Payton likens that to an “exit door,” an escape hatch from a difficult situation. But the problem with built-in excuses is they can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies.
"If you're not careful … it can become habitual for a person to build in their reason for not having success,” Payton said. “... That can be obviously more than just detrimental, that can be fatal. You've planted a seed if things don't go well.”
Obsessing about the things outside of your control is a wasted exercise, Payton said, because when people think back on this season in the future nobody is going to remember who was there and who was not or where the team had to practice. The only thing that will ever matter is whether the team was successful at the end of the season.
That much is a constant, regardless of who is on the team in a given season. That is where culture comes into play, and the Saints have an advantage in this regard with one of the NFL's most well-defined organizational cultures.
Payton has been here since 2006. His coaching staff has seen little turnover. There are almost a dozen players who have spent at least five seasons in the organization listening to Payton’s message. All the ideas that have trickled down from the top have been filtering through the same set of voices for years.
Tight end Adam Trautman has only appeared in 20 NFL games, but he’s already experienced plenty of trying situations in his short NFL career. In addition to all the pitfalls 2021 has had in store, he started his career in the midst of a pandemic and watched Drew Brees get forced to the sideline for five weeks in his rookie season.
And throughout the whole thing, the driving theme has remained consistent.
“We always say nobody in the NFL gives a damn who's missing,” Trautman said. “You show up Sundays and win. The fans don't care, nobody's going to give you an excuse.”
Part of Payton’s brilliance is getting his team to believe this idea by empowering his leaders to disseminate it.
Payton has been in his position for 15 years. He is as powerful a coach as there is in the NFL and his fingerprints are all over every facet of the organization. But when it comes to establishing a tone within his locker room, he does not overpower the voices within it.
“Everybody feels that their role has something to do with our success as a team,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins. “Coach is not just playing Madden with a bunch of robots. It's a collective effort.
“He listens to the captains and what the players need. I think that relationship makes everything a lot easier when you talk about dealing with adversity."
Kamara put it this way: Panic does not exist within the Saints facility.
When the situation goes sideways, the focus is always directed upon the best way to get things back on course rather than the things that are already off track. But finding that path is always a collective effort.
“The leaders, we all get the message,” Kamara said. “We know what Sean wants, we know what it's supposed to look like. So it's never a time where Sean has to just blow up and go crazy and try to get a reaction out of us. We know what it's supposed to be.”
So the Saints haven’t benefited from the presence of Michael Thomas, the 2019 NFL Offensive Player of the Year. So they’ve seen two critical offensive linemen go down with injury. So they’ve shuffled through multiple kickers while Wil Lutz has recovered from August surgery. So they caught a last-minute flight out of town as Hurricane Ida barreled toward the Louisana coast and then spent a month in Texas.
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So what? It’s not like the games were postponed.
“There's a million excuses of why people in life can't have success,” said defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who's spent 12 years as an assistant on Payton's staff. “There's a million exit doors and ways that you can take the easy way out. But the successful people are the ones that recognize the challenges and figure out solutions instead of an excuse of why they couldn’t get it done."
And here the Saints are, five games into what some might’ve considered a disaster start to the 2021 season, a winning team.
Sean Payton might’ve told you so.