METARIE, La. — There was a timeout on the field, and there was a discussion down on the New Orleans Saints’ sideline. There was a play in their game plan, a screen pass, that would be perfect here, the seconds ticking down to the end of the first half Sunday night, the Saints driving yet again, the visiting Dallas Cowboys reeling. There was a back-and-forth, and then there was an agreement between Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees on the screen pass: not yet, not yet.
Finally, four plays later, Brees, directing the Saints’ two-minute offense on his own, spotted the zone coverage he was anticipating and checked to the screen pass. Twenty-eight yards later, running back Darren Sproles was cruising into the end zone for a touchdown — one of seven for the Saints’ offense on a night they shattered records and announced themselves as Super Bowl-worthy.
“That was Drew. That was his anticipation,” Payton said at the Saints’ practice facility the day after the 49-17 win. “He had that call. We get in one of those two-minute drills, and he’s real good about . . . handling the clock. The timing was perfect.”
It’s like that sometimes with Brees and Payton. You don’t know where one of them ends and the other begins, particularly when it comes to the operation of the Saints’ high-powered offense. Theirs is undoubtedly the most successful pairing in this era of offensive guru and quarterback, having produced a 69-35 record, one Super Bowl title and a slew of passing records together.
It was that way in 2006, when they first converged upon post-Katrina New Orleans — Payton a first-year head coach out of the Bill Parcells coaching tree, Brees a free agent out of San Diego with a surgically repaired shoulder. It was that way in 2008, when Brees produced the first 5,000-yard passing season in the NFL in 24 years and won offensive player of the year honors. It was that way in 2009, when the Saints won the franchise’s first Super Bowl. It was that way in 2011, when Brees set an NFL record with 5,476 passing yards and the Saints made their third straight playoff appearance.
And it is that way again in 2013, with the Saints atop the NFC South at 7-2 and Brees in the midst of another monster year, trailing only Denver’s Peyton Manning in passing yards and touchdowns. The Saints’ victory Sunday night over Dallas may have set a new benchmark for the Brees/Payton offense, as they set an NFL record with 40 first downs and a franchise record of 625 yards. They appear utterly unstoppable at home, where they are 5-0 this season with an average margin of victory of 20 points. Nobody would want to face them in the Superdome in the playoffs.
“This type of performance reminds me of how we were in ’09,” said running back Pierre Thomas, who scored twice in Sunday night’s win. “Coming out, putting points on the board right away . . . It reminds us of how we clicked on all cylinders [in 2009], being explosive on the offensive side.”
It was not this way, however, between Brees and Payton in 2012. Payton spent that year away from the Saints, and more or less completely out of sight, serving a league-mandated, one-year suspension for his role in a scandal in which Saints defensive players allegedly were paid bounties to injure opposing players. Brees carried on, of course, under offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, but his 63.0 completion percentage was his lowest in a decade and his 19 interceptions led the league, while the Saints scored 86 fewer points (and allowed 115 more) than the year before and dropped to 7-9.
“You forget all the things that are required of the head coach to be responsible for,” Brees told reporters last week, in response to a question about the effect Payton’s absence had on the Saints. “Some are more involved than others. But Sean Payton is a very hands-on coach [who] has his hands in everything and feels responsible for everything. I think we missed him most in other areas, not necessarily just play-calling.”
Though Payton was gone throughout 2012 — barred from being in contact with the team — the Saints kept his spirit close by. A giant banner that hung in their indoor practice facility featured his likeness and spelled out one of his favorite mantras: “Do Your Job.” His lieutenants took over his coaching duties and stressed continuity.
But the year away, and the Saints’ crash to their first losing season since 2007, only served to raise Payton’s value, which worked to his advantage when the Saints, in the face of rumors that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones might try to poach him, gave him a $40 million contract extension to stay in New Orleans.
“Not having any contact with anyone in the league, with any team, you realize the amount of people that you [used to] see on a daily basis,” Payton told reporters last month. “So I think you appreciate that more than ever [when you come back]. You become stronger, you become maybe a little bit more cynical, and hopefully you . . . quickly [get] up to speed. There are a lot of changes.”
But the Brees/Payton dynamic needed almost no time to return to its pre-suspension heights. Brees threw for 357 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a season-opening win over Atlanta, and at his current pace would finish with 5,447 yards, 44 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions for the season. And Payton’s offense, which has led the NFL in total yards in four of the six seasons he has been at the helm, is currently second behind only Denver’s.
“From the moment [Payton] stepped back in the facility in April, he’s been locked in,” Brees told reporters in September. “He’s never let an opportunity go by without communicating a message. He has not let anything go unsaid. Maybe that’s the perspective [of a year away]. Maybe it’s just feeling like he hasn’t been around, so he wants to make sure everything is communicated, especially to a lot of these young players, about our program and what we do on a daily basis, our work ethic, building a foundation, the history.”
Added Thomas, “That thing between Sean and Drew, it never went away. It’s like family — you can be separated for a year, but when you get back together it’s like [the absence] never happened.”
At the end of Sunday night’s evisceration of the Cowboys, Brees and Payton shared a hug on the Saints’ sideline. A brutal stretch of schedule still awaits them — the 49ers at home, the Seahawks and Falcons on the road, the Panthers at home — but on nights like Sunday, with the offense rolling and the Superdome rocking, it was easy to imagine another long and fruitful winter for the Saints.