Maybe Sean Payton has had this all under control the whole time



So the Saints aren't dead after all. Their ongoing reboot attempt has been encapsulated by events on the field twice in the past two games, first with Michael Mauti's punt block against the Atlanta Falcons and then, yesterday, with a two-play sequence that was both current and vintage Sean Payton.

First, Payton challenged two incomplete pass rulings, out of frustration maybe, or because his replay booth advisors don't know the NFL's definition of a catch any better than anyone else. The TV announcers spent minutes questioning Payton's sanity (which has sometimes seemed a valid thing to). Then, the Saints successfully executed a fake field goal, and for a while I convinced myself Payton had meant his challenge as just part of the ruse.
I responded to the fake with maniacal laughter. It was satisfying. If nothing else, the Saints have provided, over the past month and in CJ Spiller's big touchdown against Dallas, in Mauti's block, and in the fake field goal, three very satisfying moments.

They are moments that, along with sporadic success on defense that threatens to become sustained success, give us glimpses of the team Sean Payton thinks he is building. When things are going badly, Payton's apparent confidence comes off as detachment. When things are going pretty well, his confidence comes off as — well — confidence, and gives the impression that he is in total control, that everything is proceeding as he has foreseen.

Even those rumors about whether Payton will try to move on to another team, which have quieted lately, and which legendary Saints commentator Jim Henderson ripped Payton for, seem like part of his design. On October 15, I wrote:
Sean Payton's contract runs through 2017. That means, without an extension, if he remains in New Orleans he'll become a lame duck after next season. NFL coaches don't like being lame ducks, but given the Saints are, at best, a big rebuilding project, Payton can't be certain he'll improve the team enough next year to justify a contract extension that would keep him the most highly-paid coach in football. 
Suddenly, Payton has a young team closing in on .500, with a red carpet of a schedule lined up in front of it, and plenty of apparent interest in him from other teams, both in the NFL and in college football. By staying competitive through the end of the season, Payton can justify a contract extension and the long-term security I believe he desires.

Football is basically a TV show. Each episode — each game — has the potential to dramatically alter the way we perceive the storyline of the overall show. Just weeks ago, most of us, or at least I, had left Sean Payton's Saints for dead, noting the broken shoulder of their quarterback and the seeming incoherence in their leadership.

There was, all along, another way to read it: The Saints had done exactly what Sean Payton said they had done. They removed players who didn't fit their culture, found young players who did, and began rebuilding by throwing those kids into the fire.

Maybe it was always as simple as that, meaning improvement was always just a matter of time and experience. Maybe this Sean Payton guy knows what he's doing. Maybe he's known it all along.

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