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Innovators Sean Payton, Sean McVay consider each other 'must-watch'

METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton and Sean McVay will get a jump-start on their weekly film studies Sunday when they get the chance to watch each other live from the sideline.

Payton, 54, has established himself as one of the NFL's all-time great offensive minds during his 13-year run with the New Orleans Saints and quarterback Drew Brees. And the 32-year-old McVay has quickly joined him in two years with the Los Angeles Rams and QB Jared Goff, despite being the youngest head coach in the league's modern history.

Both have drawn comparisons to Bill Walsh and Joe Montana because of their innovation.

But both coaches also readily admit that they will shamelessly steal ideas from one another on occasion.

Payton said the 8-0 Rams have "absolutely" become one of the "must-watch" teams when he studies other offenses around the NFL for ideas.

Likewise, McVay said of the 6-1 Saints, "I've always studied their tape every week to see what they're doing."

What both of them are doing is lighting up scoreboards on a weekly basis. On Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET, the Saints (33.4 points per game) and Rams (33.0 PPG) will become the first two teams ever to meet this late in the season while averaging at least 33 points per game, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

"I think there's some coaches that see things through the quarterback lens. Sean Payton is certainly one of those guys ... and McVay is certainly that guy," said ESPN analyst Matt Hasselbeck, who is part of a Sunday NFL Countdown crew that is going on the road for just the third time in the program's 33-year history to be in New Orleans for this marquee showdown.

Hasselbeck, who played quarterback for another of the NFL's all-time great offensive minds, Mike Holmgren, said there is something special about those playcalling coaches and quarterbacks who work in tandem like these two power couples.

McVay and Goff have gotten a lot of attention over these past two seasons -- justifiably, since they are leading the NFL with 30.9 points per game since the start of the 2017 season after the Rams ranked dead last in that category in 2016, before McVay arrived.

Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are getting similar love with their prolific new partnership in Kansas City this season.

But Payton and Brees have clearly shown in 2018 that they aren't ready to cede their title to anyone.

In fact, Payton has been throwing all-new wrinkles into his offense this season with an expanding read-option package led by third-string quarterback Taysom Hill. Just last Sunday night at Minnesota, he had three quarterbacks on the field at once -- with Brees and Teddy Bridgewater spread out wide as receivers.

"Yeah, I think we like to feel over the last 13 years that we've kind of been at the forefront of the evolution of offensive football," said Brees, who became the NFL's all-time passing yardage leader last month. "Obviously with Sean and [offensive coordinator] Pete Carmichael and [quarterbacks coach] Joe Lombardi and others who have contributed to that. Kind of taking the personnel that you have and then being able to utilize it in some really unique ways.

"I'm intrigued from week to week. There's always some wrinkles in there, that as I get the call sheet and look at it prior to meetings and everything, it's like, 'I can't wait to ask him about this.' Or maybe even saw it on film or something like that, and then all of a sudden we just create our own little variation to it."

Although Brees has lined up as a receiver several times now this season, he still hasn't caught a pass from anyone other than himself (on a tipped ball) since he caught two with the San Diego Chargers early in his career.

When asked if he's going to catch one at some point, Brees quickly replied, "I hope so. I hope so. But I don't know, we'll see."

'Attacking success'

McVay called Payton one of the great playcallers "arguably of all time." And the trait that both he and Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips singled out most was Payton's "aggressive nature" -- not surprising for a coach who famously called an onside kick to start the third quarter of a Super Bowl victory.

McVay also pointed to Payton's decision to go for it four times on fourth down during a 20-play drive to open the Saints' victory at Baltimore in Week 7.

"I think that mindset of never being afraid to fail and always attacking success is something that we try to do here," McVay said. "And I have a lot of respect for that approach, because I think it demonstrates a confidence and belief in your players."

Payton and McVay do things a little differently when it comes to personnel groupings. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, the Rams have had the most frequently employed five-player combination in the NFL this season when it comes to the skill positions (RB Todd Gurley, WRs Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, and TE Tyler Higbee have played 204 snaps together). On the flip side, the Saints haven't used any combination for more than 51 snaps.

But what both coaches like to do is mix things up to gain information from a defense -- and figure out where they can attack.

Both coaches will move their personnel around, perhaps lining up tight ends or running backs outside of the receivers to see if a defense is playing man or zone.

"They'll create a little bit of quick movement and then shift and get set and maybe get some pre-snap information relative to what they think you're doing and then get to some advantage plays," said Payton, who pointed out that the Rams use a lot of tight splits and rarely line up their receivers outside the numbers. "They do a good job with their formations and kind of giving you a few different looks and running maybe three different plays off a similar formation."

Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said what really makes the Rams offense stand out is how much it can hurt you with both the run and the pass, whereas some teams excel in one area and just try to "keep you honest" in the other. And because Gurley is so dangerous, Goff leads the NFL in play-action passing yardage this season. Hasselbeck said most defenses stack the box against Los Angeles with a single-high safety, but McVay is great at using that to his advantage.

Payton said when the Saints coaches put together a highlight reel of touchdowns from around the NFL every week, "Here's Gurley from 28 yards, here's Gurley from 30 yards, here's Gurley catching a screen for a touchdown."

Another thing Payton and McVay have both been credited for is knowing how to take advantage of the NFL's changing rules -- things like outlawing hits against defenseless receivers or limiting contact down the field.

"Sean Payton stands out in that regard, big-time," said Hasselbeck, who pointed to the seam routes Brees has been throwing since guys such as Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham were in New Orleans.

Hasselbeck said the "Sluggo seam" route has become a staple in the NFL (a slant-and-go on one side and a seam route on the other, forcing a safety to choose). But, he added, "Drew is as good as anybody has ever been at throwing that play, and Sean is as good as anybody at calling it at the right time and scheming you up formationally to be in the right coverage."

But Brees balked a little bit at the notion that the rules have helped him and Payton lead the NFL in passing yards by nearly 30 yards per game over any other team in the league since they arrived together in 2006.

"I don't know. I don't play the game any different," Brees said. "If a guy's open, throw it to him. Be accurate with the ball, move the chains, score points."

'We did this'

One of the first things both Payton and Hasselbeck pointed to when praising McVay is the work he has done with Goff, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2016 who began 0-7 as a starter that season before his remarkable turnaround under McVay's tutelage.

"Remember, there were questions whether or not he could play in this league," Payton said. "Quickly, Sean did a great job of really looking into, 'What are the things that he does well?' I think they've done a great job with personnel. He's put together an outstanding staff.

"And so I think his energy, his creative thinking, just his approach overall, he's someone that obviously loves football. ... I think he's done an unbelievable job in just a short time he's been there."

The one thing McVay and Goff can't approach for a while, however, is the continuity Payton and Brees have together, which Hasselbeck said is one of the NFL's most undervalued commodities.

Payton and Brees can practically finish each other's sentences -- so to speak -- as they explained in a detailed conversation with ESPN this summer about what goes into their sophisticated playcalls.

"I just remember when Drew Brees comes over and he hugs Sean Payton [on the sideline after Brees broke the passing yardage record] and it's, 'Hey, can you believe this?' Kind of like a, 'We did this,'" Hasselbeck said. "It's pretty obvious that you're almost at an unfair advantage when you have that kind of continuity at the quarterback and head coach/playcaller position."

-- ESPN Rams reporter Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report