An NFL coach is charged with, among other things, providing a winning message to his team in the days leading up to a game. And so everything Sean Payton has told his New Orleans Saints about playing at CenturyLink Field suggests it is a special place, one requiring unique measures and a singular performance from a visiting team to win.
Conventional wisdom more typically drives coaches to emphasize the homogeneity of a road game. It's still football. Execution wins. Play our game.
So what should we make of the way Payton handled the run-up to the Saints' Week 13 matchup at the Seattle Seahawks, a 34-7 disaster, along with his shenanigans this week leading to Saturday's divisional playoff game? Are the Seahawks in the heads of Payton and his players? Or is he admirably searching for ways to even out what might be a mismatch on paper?
Generally speaking, I'm a fan of a classic Payton coaching pillar. It goes like this, as ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett relayed it recently: To do something you've never done before, you have to do something you've never done before. I've also heard it put another way: If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten. And as long as we're flipping through coaching mantras, we'll add Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
The fact is the Saints had middling success on the road in the regular season, losing five of eight games while averaging about half the amount of points as they scored at home and suffering a 14-point swing in their turnover ratio. Assuming the same methods would lead to different results can be found deep within NFL coaching stubbornness, but Payton thought otherwise.
To give his team a better chance in the noise and elements in Week 13, Payton had players fitted for custom ear plugs. The Saints used college-style boards on the sidelines to signal formations. The result was their worst offensive performance, in terms of yards, in 10 years.
An outsider, at least, would wonder if the Saints -- a team with a Super Bowl-winning coach and a future Hall of Fame quarterback -- went too far and psyched themselves out. The underlying message of those methods was, in essence, that the Saints couldn't win playing their own game. In some ways, you wonder if those methods powered an even greater gap between the teams -- you can't win without custom-made devices to drown out the noise -- than previously existed.
"I don't know if that was necessarily everything [involved in the loss]," Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins told reporters this week. "But we did put a lot of thought into going to Seattle, and we know it's going to be loud. We know their defense is gonna make plays, the offense is gonna run the ball.
"But football is football at the end of the day. We don't need earmuffs and stuff like that. We just need to go play and execute. So I don't think we'll put as much thought into those small details this time. But we know it's a tough place to play, and we're gonna have to play our best game if we want to win. And we're fine with that challenge."
Payton acknowledged this week that "I don't know how much worked well the last time," but that hasn't stopped him from producing at least one new twist. The Saints painted the Seahawks' logo on their practice field, which Payton said was an attempt to re-produce the exact environment they will play in Saturday. Even if it was a simple motivational ploy, however, its message once again was that the Saints must take special measures to compete in the Seahawks' stadium.
The Seahawks are 15-1 at CenturyLink in the past two seasons, but I'm with Jenkins. After the Week 13 experience, the Saints would be best served focusing on honing their strengths rather than building workarounds to avoid the Seahawks'.
Last weekend's road victory against the Philadelphia Eagles should provide some confidence, and from a historic perspective there is ample precedent for a competitive Saints showing. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, there have been 25 playoff rematches between teams whose regular-season matchup was decided by at least 27 points. The losing team has won more than half (13) of those rematches. It's just football, after all.