Sean Payton has the brains, bravado to win without Drew Brees

SEATTLE -- The timing was impeccable.

Coach Sean Payton just signed a five-year extension with the New Orleans Saints before Sunday’s game at the Los Angeles Rams.

Then his role suddenly became more important than ever when quarterback Drew Brees suffered a thumb injury that could sideline him for at least six weeks.

“I think this is what he lives for, making these types of game plans and being tested in certain situations like this,” Saints guard Larry Warford said. “I mean, he’s Sean Payton. So you couldn’t ask for a better coach to draw something up for us.”

Payton has never actually won a game without Brees as his quarterback in 13 seasons as a head coach. He is 0-3 -- losing once when Brees was injured and twice when the Saints rested their starters in Week 17.

But don’t let that fool you. Because it’s hard to imagine that anyone could be better suited to guide the Saints through these uncharted waters.

Payton’s gamesmanship was already on display during his morning conference call on Wednesday, when he kept the Seattle Seahawks on their toes with his answer about dual-threat backup QB Taysom Hill now being the “No. 2 quarterback” behind Teddy Bridgewater.

“That’s you making the assumption that he’s the No. 2,” said Payton, who declined to name an official starter. “We’ll approach this game with two quarterbacks, and we’ll see where we’re at with it.”

As much of a bummer as it is for the Saints and their fan base to lose Brees for an extended period for the first time in his career, frankly it’s also kind of exciting to see how Payton tries to strategize his way out of this.

Payton was so clearly energized last year as he increased the package of plays for his “new toy” Hill as a read-option quarterback/running back/receiver/tight end. And now he can design plays around Bridgewater’s skill set as well -- maybe even lining the two QBs up on the field together at times.

But even more important than Payton’s creativity and brilliance as a playcaller is his bravado.

When I asked defensive end Cameron Jordan if he thinks Payton relishes this opportunity, he said, “Absolutely,” adding that Payton is “overly enthused.”

And several players pointed to Payton’s energy as setting the tone for a team that is more defiant than dejected.

“I would say Drew's been the heart and soul, but Coach Payton is the leader of this team,” Hill said. “I would tell you, from the day we've arrived here until now, his spirits have been really positive, really good. And that energy and his positivity throughout the week has been something that we've all felt, and I know that I certainly appreciate it."

“Sean's ready, like he's ready for the challenge,” running back Alvin Kamara said.

“It’s not normal to have a coach who’s gonna be the one firing up the guys,” Warford said. “But he feels like he’s legitimately part of the team. He’s not like above us, he’s with us. So it’s good to have a coach like that in this type of situation.”

“A lot of different things get Coach going. A lot of different things get his blood boiling and get him going,” left tackle Terron Armstead said. “So whatever is fueling him for the day, we’ll take it, and we’ll feed off it.”

Payton doesn’t really need to prove his chops as a head coach or strategist or offensive playcaller at this stage of his career. He’s a revolutionary offensive mind whose teams have averaged more than 400 yards per game since he arrived in New Orleans -- by far the most in the NFL over that stretch.

Payton’s longevity is already so rare that he is one of just six coaches during the Super Bowl era to have at least two 11-win seasons in his second decade as coach of the same team.

But if we’re treating this as a career-defining audition for Bridgewater -- perhaps a chance to prove he is worthy of succeeding Brees down the road -- then we’re also bound to learn something more about Payton’s own ability to thrive in the post-Brees era.