HARRISON, Idaho – No, Sean Payton didn’t quite jump ship.
Ask the former New Orleans Saints coach to predict the winner of the NFC South and Payton did not hesitate to supply Tom Brady & Co. Some bulletin board materials to start the season.
Payton sees the Saints – not the famous pirates of Tampa Bay – grabbing the division’s title.
“And here’s why: We finished last year at 9-8, with 50 players missing games through injury,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports during a wide-ranging interview. “It’s easy to see two more wins there. That puts you at 11 (wins). Then on the contrary, Tampa seems to have had some injuries. I think the early schedule favors New Orleans, the way it was set up.
Atlanta is in transition. Carolina is in transition,” Payton added, referring to the other NFC South teams. “There’s no disrespect for those teams but I feel like it’s a race between two teams in this division. Will you be close? I’m sure it will be. But the training system is intact (without pytons) with the same coordinators. There is a lot of continuity. And this team knows they can beat Tampa Bay.”
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The Saints, who will host the Bucs in their inaugural home game in Week 2, have won the past seven regular season encounters against Tampa Bay (although the Bucs won a playoff game in New Orleans during that period after the 2020 season). So there is certainly validity regarding the Saints’ confidence in the face of their hot rival.
However, Payton, now a studio analyst on the Fox Sports NFL pre-game show while eventually aiming to return to the sideline after stepping away from his job at Saints earlier this year after 16 seasons, undoubtedly has some Bias in the mix when evaluating his former team’s chances.
It also wraps wishful thinking with some relevant context.
Last season, the Saints used 58 registered NFL players in the starting lineup for at least one game and rounded through the 95 players on the 53-player roster. It was one of Payton’s best training performances, with adjustments including losing midfielder James Winston in a torn AFC Champions League final on October 31, and his offensive line being forced to use 11 different starting sets. New Orleans has won four of its last five games and narrowly missed an expansion of the field.
Payton, who has been replaced by his former defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen, is optimistic about off-season additions such as safety Terran Mathew, receiver Jarvis Landry, quarterback Andy Dalton and first-round receiver Chris Olaf. He believes the Saints will continue to represent one of the NFL’s most prolific defenses. He is keen to get superstar Michael Thomas back into shape after struggling with injuries for the past two seasons. The offense is believed to be in good hands with longtime coordinator Pete Carmichael remaining in place.
Although Payton invited plays during his tenure, Carmichael stepped into the role in 2012 serving as the coach for a year’s suspension due to the Saints Bounty scandal.
“It’s been in my ear every season,” Payton said of Carmichael who was plugged into a headset on game days. “They won’t miss anything there.”
However, Payton has reservations when it comes to how the Saints will handle Tysum Hill – the versatile athlete who was Payton’s pilot project.
With Payton gone, Saints Hill put Saints in trouble for the first time in his five-year professional career. Hill has started nine quarterback games in the past two seasons due to injuries and Payton has used him extensively as a passing threat weapon. But with the return of Winston, who beat Hill in position after Drew Bryce retired, and with the addition of Dalton, Allen appears to have moved on from using Hill in the kind of hybrid role Payton created.
Hill – who did not line up until this year in the three-point position – told reporters during training camp that he was willing to adjust to the new position, but admitted he was still hoping for a quarterback-type role. Payton still envisions Hill being a factor in cases of short yardage and goal line.
“I’m curious to see their plans for how they use it,” Payton said. “I should think he’s still in the packs that put him in the quarterback. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t. Now why are they showing their hands? They can easily practice that and wait until the start of the regular season. But if his role is scaled back for those picks, it would surprise me because he was Very effective in this role.
“I know they made an announcement. I understood it all. But… there were a lot of things he did well that caused defensive issues.”
What about Winston? Payton was asked if creating a clear clicking arrangement, with Dalton also in the mix, might ease the psyche of the key midfielder.
“I totally agree with the idea of, ‘Hey, here’s our freshman,'” Payton said. Clearly, and rightly so, they wanted to say, “James is going to start for us.” And they went out and signed Andy as backup. The opening three weeks will tell whether or not they will continue to use Taysom in the role. I would be surprised if he did not participate in the short distance, the goal line. There are so many things he can do. This is an asset and I think Dennis and Pete are powers that be smart enough to use it.”
This sounds a lot like a passionate man drawing another line in the sand. Whether it’s Hill’s designs or rivalry with the Bucs, it’s clear Payton still has some strong feelings flowing when it comes to his former team.