METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was jogging back to the locker room for halftime at Atlanta in Week 13 when he decided to pick the brain of one of his most trusted offensive minds:
Running back Alvin Kamara.
"It was just in casual conversation -- he happened to be next to me walking to the locker room. And I said, 'What do you like in the second half?' Just getting his gut," Payton said. "We talked about a few different runs. And then he said to me, 'I really like that same play that we ran Taysom [Hill’s quarterback] keeper, but the run off of it.'"
Sure enough, Payton took Kamara’s advice. He installed an adjusted version of the play at halftime -- this time with Kamara getting the ball -- and it resulted in an 11-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Payton explains the origin of Kamara's TD run against the Falcons. I remember shooting him and Payton talking going to half. Here's the visual with Payton's explanation: pic.twitter.com/efdrUpyYoZ— Adam Ney (@sayneykid) December 9, 2020
Kamara led the NFL with 21 touchdowns this season -- three more than any other player. But that one was probably his most satisfying.
"I was coming off and [Payton] was like, 'You called that play!' And I was like, 'Yeah, you damn right,'" recalled Kamara, who said it was both validating to know he read the situation correctly and potentially useful in the future.
"It's like, OK, I might have some money in the bank now," Kamara said. "I might be able to call a couple plays in the game.'"
The truth is, Kamara has had "money in the bank" since the first time Payton went to Tennessee for a private visit before the 2017 draft.
The Saints were enamored with Kamara -- not only because of his physical gifts, but because of the intelligence he showed while sitting in on a meeting with quarterback prospect Joshua Dobbs and the way he picked things up so quickly when Payton asked him to run several routes on the field.
"The whole day made an impact," Payton said. "I could tell right away he was someone that was going to learn extremely quickly."
Less than a week into Kamara’s first training camp, Payton compared his intelligence to that of Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, whom Payton coached at San Diego State and described as "one of the smarter players I ever coached."
Payton has routinely praised Kamara’s football mind since. So it should come as little surprise Kamara still touched the ball 25 times for a total of 116 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s playoff win over the Chicago Bears, despite not being able to practice while on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
"There are some players that it might have affected more," Payton said. "But he’s extremely smart, so he can pick things up right away. He was Zoomed in for meetings, [watched practices virtually via live stream]. And he is one of those players that understands what we’re doing formationally. So it made the transition a little bit smoother."
A 'rule breaker'
Kamara’s intuition was also on display the first time the Saints played the Bears in Chicago in Week 8.
On the final play of the first quarter, Kamara ran toward the flat and saw Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack dropped back to cover him while an extra blitzer attacked the Saints’ offensive line from the opposite side.
“The linebacker expanded, and he expanded. So the inside was butt naked,” Kamara explained. “So I was just a little bit patient and gave him some eyes and looked at him a little bit and broke in.”
The result: A short pass from Drew Brees, who recognized which choice Kamara was making on a three-way "choice route." And a 47-yard gain up the middle of that wide-open field.
Deuce McAllister, a former Saints running back and current radio analyst, laughed while explaining Kamara is actually "a rule breaker" many times on choice routes.
“When I say that, it’s because he is so talented -- and because he and Drew have done it so many times. So normally on certain routes, you don’t have the option to take it upfield unless it’s a called play by Coach Payton,” McAllister said. “That’s normally a big no-no, because the quarterback isn’t expecting you to (A) see that and (B) have enough time to do it.
“But Alvin is so sharp and understanding what the defense is doing to you. … He sees it, Drew sees it, and he takes it vertical.”
Brees said for choice routes like that to work, “it takes a guy with great feel, patience, understanding and timing.”
“He’s one of the most intelligent football players I've ever been around. You just tell him once, and he's got it. Or he can just watch it on film or see it one time and he's got it. And he's got such good feel,” Brees said. “He doesn’t even need to get out there and rep it. He'll remember it, he'll retain it. And I think that's just a rare trait."
Brees and McAllister said they have seen Kamara’s natural intuition grow mature with four years of experience and time spent learning under coaches like Payton, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. and running backs coach Joel Thomas and veteran teammates like Mark Ingram II and Latavius Murray.
Center Erik McCoy also described Kamara as "money" when it comes to knowing the Saints’ pass protections.
“When you kind of come into your own and your skill level is at an all-time high, then you add the experience of going on four years as an NFL player and being in an offense like this … it’s like when all of the stars align,” Brees said. “Like, man, he’s in his prime. And he’s poised to be able to do pretty much anything.”
Curing the boredom
The only problem with Kamara’s football mind operating at the same elusive speed as his legs is he admittedly gets bored in practice sometimes.
A couple years ago, Payton actually gave Kamara a fidget spinner to play with on those occasions where his mind started to wander.
"That's like the ongoing joke with me, my attention span when it comes to some of these things," Kamara said earlier this season. "I do kind of pride myself in being smart and being able to retain information. So there's times where even Coach Thomas, I'm talking to him, and I'm like, 'Yo, just chill, I got it.'"
"It may seem like I don't, because I just got to try to have fun and keep it light. So they're always checking on me. … But I’ve got it."
Kamara said he has always wanted to know as much as possible about the offense and what opposing defenses are trying to do to him. He said that was the case as far back as he can remember. But it has especially ramped up because of the level of play in the NFL -- and because he has gotten to work alongside a fellow analytical mind like Brees.
“I always watch him and how he dissects the game and dissects plays. And I always try to learn the plays, and I’ll call them out, like recite the plays when Drew is in the huddle and just try to know alignments, assignments, everybody, everything,” Kamara said. “So it makes the game easier. And it makes it fun, because I’ll be bored sometimes.”
Kamara also revealed another reason he has always approached the game this way.
“I'm gonna be honest. This might give you some insight into how I think and, like, the real football IQ. So me, I don't like people saying s--- to me,” Kamara said. “So when we install something, I try to take the time to know what's going on before it's even installed. So when it's installed, I already know, then it's just reinforced. And then when I get on the field, and you know, Sean might try to say something to me before the play like, ‘Hey, this is that one ...’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, I got it already, I know it.’
“So it might be a little bit of pride for me.”
Of course, it’s also a fun payoff when Kamara can carve up a defense because he knows how it's going to attack him.
Kamara is the first player in NFL history to produce at least 500 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in each of his first four seasons. And he already ranks second in Saints history with 59 career touchdowns.
“A lot of that starts with identifying what they’re trying to do to him -- and then being able to react,” McAllister said. “When you see Alvin run, it’s almost like he’s gliding -- he’s so smooth. He’s either pulling away from everyone, or no one can really bring him down.
“It’s almost like he’s one or two moves ahead of where that defense is.”