Why 8-8 ranks among top achievements for Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints coaches

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METAIRIE, La. – One of coach Sean Payton’s favorite expressions that he lifted from mentor Bill Parcells is, “You are what your record says you are.”

But the New Orleans Saints’ 8-8 mark probably deserves a half-dozen asterisks and a few chapters worth of footnotes to fully appreciate it. The Saints can make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season Sunday if they beat the Atlanta Falcons and the Los Angeles Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers.

That would be a remarkable achievement, considering:

  • Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees retired in March.

  • The Saints had to gut their roster, shaving $111 million to fit under the NFL’s reduced salary cap, then could barely afford to add reinforcements in free agency.

  • The team had to evacuate for Hurricane Ida in August and spend the first month of the season living in Dallas, while playing their first “home game” in Jacksonville against the Green Bay Packers (which the Saints won 38-3).

  • Superstar receiver Michael Thomas and kicker Wil Lutz were among those who never played a down this season because of injuries. Then, after the Saints got off to an unlikely 5-2 start, quarterback Jameis Winston suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Week 8.

  • New Orleans has set an NFL record with 58 different starters used this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, because of injuries, COVID-19 issues and suspensions. The offensive line was supposed to be the strength of the team, but All-Pro offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk and Pro Bowl guard Andrus Peat have missed a combined 25 games. The Saints have used four different starting quarterbacks and 10 different starting O-line combinations. And that total of 58 offensive and defensive starters doesn’t even include the four kickers they’ve used.

“When you go all the way back to the start of the season, it feels like two and a half years ago we were evacuating to Dallas during the hurricane. I mean, It doesn't feel like that's part of this season,” said Payton, who laughed while reflecting back on all the challenges. “I'm trying to think of a good way to describe it. Like, there's a certain bar or temperament for news that you normally have. And then when it keeps coming and coming and coming via text or in meetings, then pretty soon that bar gets raised because you just keep getting hitting in the side of the head. And at some point you’ve gotta smile and then bow up a little bit and get ready for the challenge still.

“This stretch has been, I don't want to say exhausting, but it's been one of those where you just get on to the [next task]. Nothing surprises you.”

Actually, check that.

Payton did admit he was a little surprised two weeks ago when two newly signed players were being fitted for their equipment in the pregame locker room on a Monday night while the Saints were missing 20 eligible players because of a COVID outbreak.

“I’ve just never seen anything like that before,” Payton said with another laugh. “You keep getting different curveballs, and it gets back to that mantra where, ‘Hey, no one really cares about your challenges.’ In fact, there's a group of people that are glad you have ‘em.

“I think the players and staff have handled a lot of challenging things not always perfectly, but we’ve managed to keep our head above water, keep grinding and keep fighting.”

Payton probably won’t get much love for Coach of the Year – partly because his offense has plummeted to 29th in the NFL in yards per game. But that’s even more evidence of how gritty this team has become while leaning heavily on its defense. And the entire coaching staff deserves some love for the way it has handled so much adversity.

Especially defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who -- oh by the way -- had to fill in as the interim head coach last month while Payton himself was sidelined by COVID-19. The Saints went on the road in that game and shut out Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 9-0.

Allen should once again have some head coaching opportunities in the coming weeks after his unit has become the Saints’ lifeline, allowing just one total touchdown in their past three victories.

Although Payton acknowledged that this year has been unique, he said the team goes into every season building a staff and roster that can handle adversity.

Quarterback Taysom Hill said one of the things that has always separated Payton and his staff is their ability to know the team’s strengths and weaknesses and to have a clear vision for what it will take to win each specific game.

“And I think you’ve seen that more this season than any I’ve ever been a part of,” Hill said. “We’ve had so much personnel change. And, man, those guys just continue to stay up later and later to make sure they put guys in the right spot and figure out the best way to win.”

Hill also credited Payton for knowing when to back off and cut back on reps when the injuries and losses piled up during a five-game losing streak in the middle of the season.

“He changed things up and tried to take care of guys and continue to motivate people even when that was obviously an unfamiliar thing for this team,” Hill said.

And veteran linebacker Demario Davis, who joined the Saints in 2018, said this team’s culture is the best he has ever been around.

"There are no words to express how proud I am to be a part of a culture like this one -- a team like this, a coaching staff like this, all of my brothers in the locker room,” Davis said. “The journey that we've been through this season could make a lot of people maybe fold or hang it up. But this team has been resilient, has continued to fight the entire time.

“For us to be going into the last week of the season to have a chance to chase the crown is remarkable in regards to all that we’ve been through.”

For the record, Payton stood by Parcells' axiom and insisted that no asterisk will be needed on this season, win or lose.

"We have a chance to be 9-8 and going into the postseason, or 8-9 and then just file that one away and whatever, you’ll be able to explain to anyone why we were 8-9," Payton said. "But 9-8 and into the postseason is exciting to me, and it’s gonna require us to play well in this game.”

It also would require a little help from the Rams, who would be the Saints' opponent in the first-round of the playoffs if they got there.