When the bounty suspensions were handed down by Roger Goodell this summer and the New Orleans Saints found out they were going to be without head coach Sean Payton for the season — and without assistant head coach (and obvious choice for interim coach) Joe Vitt for the first six games — I promise you that more than a few of the Saints players thought, “No problem.”
That wasn’t a sign of disrespect to Payton or Vitt, who are popular with their players. But NFL players are willful, highly motivated, self-made millionaires who pride themselves on their professionalism, and they surely told themselves the Saints would shake off their suspensions, rally around the cause and continue being a perennial playoff contender.
You know the rest of the story: The Saints, after losing an 18-point lead to previously winless Kansas City at the Superdome on Sunday, fizzled to a 27-24 overtime loss, and now stand at 0-3. This from a team that was a co-favorite to win the division, and boasts one of the three or four best quarterbacks in football.
There’s a lesson here: We, as coaches, may not be as important as we like to think we are. But when we do our job well — and Payton has been one of the league’s best head coaches — we do make a difference, and probably are more important than most players want to admit.
One of the questions I hear often is, “What is a head coach’s responsibility in the modern NFL?” This is a fair question, especially in a league increasingly dominated by coordinators, who often receive wide latitude from their head coaches to devise game plans and make in-game calls.
The head coach’s job is wide and varied. First and foremost, though, he must set the tone and vision for his team and his organization, as to what the team’s personality will be and what its priorities are.
Sean Payton has done that expertly, and might have hoped that after instilling this detailed structure, the coaches, players and organization as a whole would be able to implement that vision, even in his absence.
The problem is that even after you deliver your defining message, you need to follow up — almost literally on a daily basis — pushing, prodding, refining, moving your people toward maintaining the focus and energy required to realize that vision. This is an amorphous task, but I promise you it’s far more important than the design of any play or defense.
A lot of those things left the room when Payton began his suspension. And despite the 30-foot by 30-foot picture of a scowling Payton at the Saints practice facility (above the motto “DO YOUR JOB”), there’s something both tangible and intangible lost without him there.
The tangible part — his offensive game-planning and in-game adjustment abilities — are the most obvious. Sunday against the Chiefs, New Orleans started hot, was up 7-0 in the first two minutes and averaged nearly 10 yards a play for much of the first half. But the Chiefs defense, still run by their head coach, the wise, canny Romeo Crennel, adjusted well to what New Orleans was doing, and the Saints never found an adequate answer for the Chiefs’ increased defensive pressure.
But the intangible stuff is important as well — the continuity, the institutional memory, the sheer force of the head coach’s presence. And that has been missing this year.
In its place has been a massive, months-long series of distractions. You can be sure that every one of the Saints has been asked several dozen times since the beginning of training camp what kind of effect Payton’s year-long absence and Vitt’s six-game absence will have on the team. In lieu of a strong message from the head coach, the media’s message and angle — “Can this ship sail without its captain?” — can come to dominate not just the sports pages and the airwaves, but also the team’s own perceptions.
In Payton and Vitt’s absence, the most thankless job in the league goes to the Saints interim interim head coach, Aaron Kromer. He’s got a good future, and may get a head coaching job in the league one day. But this year, he’s in an unenviable position. He’s a little like the gym teacher who is asked to come over and work as the substitute history professor for a while. People may like him, but he doesn’t have the credibility, because everyone knows that once the teacher comes back, he goes back to running the dodgeball games.
This has nothing to do with how good a coach Kromer is, or wheither the players like him. It is a matter of accountability. At the end of the day, only Sean Payton can execute Sean Payton’s vision for this team. This is the vision that Saints’ players know they will return to when Payton returns next year.
There is an old saying in coaching that goes, “They will walk if you let them.” In other words, it’s human nature for players to let excuses be made on their behalf when things don’t go well, even if they aren’t the ones making those excuses.
Every time something has gone wrong for the Saints this season, the team has had this small consolation, the perfect excuse: “Sean’s not here.” They aren’t saying this publicly, and they may not even be saying it privately. But it’s there in the background, to subtly let everyone off the hook.
In the end, the Saints were likely destined to struggle in the wake of Bountygate. Coaches are not indispensible, and when there’s a pronounced difference in the relative talent levels of two teams, the more talented team will almost always win, no matter who’s coaching it.
But that’s just the thing: The modern NFL, where parity is king (and 27 of the league’s 32 clubs have 2-1 or 1-2 records), the differences between teams are often minute and subtle. And so the effect of a good head-coaching job (or, conversely, a bad, overbearing or ineffectual head-coaching job) over the course of a year can be substantial.
I’m not saying the Saints won’t turn it around and find a way to be competitive this year. What I’m saying is that a Saints team coached by Sean Payton would not have lost an 18-point second-half lead to the Kansas City Chiefs at home.
And, finally… if a team is missing its head coach, and distracted by his absence, it doesn’t matter how big you print his picture at the team headquarters. He will be missed.