Hartley's release shows Payton's mind-set

Sean Payton's decision to release kicker Garrett Hartley on Tuesday was both expected and stunning at the same time.

You could certainly see the move coming. Payton hinted at it after Hartley missed two field goals in the New Orleans Saints' 27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. And Hartley has arguably been having the most up-and-down season of his roller-coaster career.

Yet it's still a bold move, especially considering that it comes in Week 16 of the season. And I think that speaks to exactly where Payton's mindset is right now. He knows this team has championship potential, but he also knows the Saints are on the verge of letting this season slip away from them.

No, the kicker alone won't decide the Saints' fate. But as I wrote Monday, Payton is clearly intent on making sure he doesn't leave any stone unturned as he tries to make this team as playoff-ready as possible. He was as candid as ever on Sunday and Monday as he admitted that he still doesn't quite know what this current Saints team is made of -- and that he knows he can't rely on the results from past years like 2009 and 2011.

Payton made a similar decision when he yanked left tackle Charles Brown from the starting lineup during the Rams loss. It remains unclear if he'll make a permanent change there, but Payton insisted Monday that several players are being closely evaluated right now. Everything is, starting with Payton's own coaching decisions.

I don't see this as panic or overreaction from Payton. It's just the latest example of the attention to detail that quarterback Drew Brees has described as the No. 1 trait he has seen from Payton since the coach returned from his 2012 suspension.

It began in the preseason with big and small changes alike (the defensive coordinator, the run scheme, the offseason workout program). And it has continued throughout the year.

As for Hartley, it's tough to see him depart after he has handled so many extreme highs and lows so well over the years, from being suspended to being a playoff hero to being benched to being injured. Payton stood by him through some other low patches in the past, and Hartley has obviously formed a close bond with longtime teammates.

But it's also understandable why the move was made after Hartley had shown so much inconsistency on the field this season. The two misses at St. Louis (from 36 and 26 yards) were ugly kicks. And Hartley missed six of his past 14 field-goal attempts.