Saints' Payton full of motivational ploys

METAIRIE, La. – From mock funerals to bashing musical instruments to imitating a hoodie-clad contemporary, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton is willing to try just about anything to cajole his squad.

Coming off the first Super Bowl title and appearance in New Orleans history, it's also clear Payton has been far more right than wrong with his motivational moments.

"Not everything works, but you put it out there and see how the players respond," said Payton, whose sparkling eyes dart like Phil Ivey in tournament mode. Payton is a man filled with ideas, whether it's how to run a pass pattern or how to get his team focused.

Now comes the latest challenge: How does Payton get his team to turn its focus from distractions that have included celebration, a drug scandal and health scare to preparation? So far, Payton has only pulled out a couple of small ideas, but no doubt his brain will soon be as thick with plans as the summer air is with humidity around New Orleans.

"He's going to come up with something," said safety Darren Sharper(notes), who explored the free-agency market before re-signing with the Saints last month.

Payton better or it's easy to see that the Saints could be like so many teams that rest on laurels. This week, the team will hold a private ceremony to award the Super Bowl rings. In August, the Saints will travel to the White House for a meet-and-greet with President Obama.

Payton is trying to make the White House visit part of the routine. Instead of returning home after the visit, the Saints will continue on to New England for a couple of days of camp work with the Patriots before playing a preseason game there on Aug. 12.

"We want to make it like it's part of a business trip," Payton said.

Around that time, it might be wise for Payton to break out another impression of his buddy Bill Belichick..

In Payton's book "Home Team", which is due out later this month, he details many of the exhausting steps it took to rebuild the Saints in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 3-13 record in 2005. There were all sorts of problems, from hiring coaches to simply getting wake up calls at the local hotel. There were team-building exercises, such as paint ball and competitive water sliding.

There were also stark moments, such as last season when Payton did a video pretending to be Belichick. It was during the week the Saints hosted New England. The Saints won 38-17, a result so lopsided that Belichick pulled quarterback Tom Brady(notes) with more than five minutes left in the game.

That dominating effort was stirred by Payton's stark criticism of his own team, but done as if Belichick was telling his own players about how to beat the Saints.

"The first thing I did was criticize myself," Payton said, echoing comments from his book and then dropping into his Belichick voice. " 'He hasn't taken care of the ball since he took over as a coach.' I made it look and sound as much like Bill as I could and I went over everything we don't do well, all the things about our team that you would attack, that any coach would criticize us for."

Payton mimicked Belichick, widely regarded for his knowledge of strategy, in part because of his respect for his counterpart. Throughout his book, Payton praises the work of Belichick and others, such as Bill Parcells. To Payton, Belichick's method of building the Patriots is the model for what he has tried to do with the Saints.

"That was a good one, he got our attention," Saints defensive end Will Smith(notes) said, his eyes opening a little wider as he remembered it.

Payton said he looked at interviews of Belichick, studying everything from the cadence of how Belichick talks to the clothes he wears.

"I must have spent 45 minutes at least going over that tape making sure I had it right," Payton said.

After a few initial chuckles from the players, Payton's impersonation created a steely seriousness. From talking about pushing the pocket in order to get in quarterback Drew Brees'(notes) face to going over the Saints' sometimes sloppy tackling, the players knew that this was the very way Belichick was talking to his team about New Orleans.

"He nailed it," said Saints fullback Heath Evans(notes), who spent three-and-a-half seasons with the Patriots before signing with the Saints last year.

That move created focus for the Saints. This offseason, getting focused on the upcoming season has been a difficult process. To some extent, New Orleans hasn't stopped partying since that time in early February.

"I couldn't even drink all the drinks I've been offered since we won," Smith said.

While some players talk in clichés about "turning that off" and "knowing how to separate" that moment of glory from getting ready to play again, defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove(notes) put it in better perspective.

"I'm never going to stop celebrating or enjoying that moment," Hargrove said. "That's what you play your whole life for, what you do all these practices and make all these sacrifices for. But what you have to understand is you need to keep working to get back to that point, to have that feeling again.

"That's why we come out here now. … Me, I'm on defense and I feel like I'm here to defend our title. It starts with us on defense. We've got to be better because we know people think they can come after us."

To others, Payton has started to work on their vanity. After touring the Pro Football Hall of Fame recently, Payton talked about how most of the players in the hall are from teams that won multiple titles.

"You look at the Pittsburghs and San Franciscos and you realize that winning is the big difference," said Payton, who has given out shirts that say simply "Our Time." That's to indicate that the Saints want not just one season of success, but a series of years.

Payton watches over his team during an OTA session last week.
(Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire)

That's not lost on Saints players like Smith and Sharper, both of whom have had very good careers but will be a hard sell for the Hall without more team success.

"I know people around the NFL know me as a good player, but probably not as much on a national level," said Smith, a former first-round pick.

Aside from that, Payton also posted a lengthy notice on the front of every player's locker this offseason. It was titled the "Saints Core Beliefs" and included a mission statement about what players are expected to do. It finishes with, "The question is not how far. The question is … do we possess the constitution, the depth of faith to go as far as is needed?"

While some fans might view that as Pollyanna, mumbo-jumbo, the reality is that sometimes it works. Not all the time, but enough times that Payton is going to keep on trying.

"It's just like what we ask of the players," Payton said. "We look for smart football players who can mentally handle what's asked of them and what's around them. We want people with a high football IQ, who football matters to.

"If we're going to do that, we need to come up with ideas that keep them focused and help them understand what we're asking of them."

Even if sometimes you pretend to be someone else while you do the asking.