CANTON, Ohio – New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is hearing voices these days. Actually, it's only one voice; Sean Payton is still stuck in his head.
"I hear him every day," Brees said of his suspended head coach. "He's not there, but I hear him."
As the Saints prepare for one of the most intriguing seasons in recent NFL memory – or as Brees succinctly said, "this is weird" – one of the critical issues facing the team is the void in leadership created by Payton's season-long suspension as a result of the bounty scandal. And Payton's interim replacement, Joe Vitt, will miss the season's first six games as part of the league punishments.
Payton's dynamic combination of intelligence and energy have been a critical element of the greatest run of success in Saints history, including the team's lone Super Bowl victory to cap the 2009 campaign. Now, the Saints must find a way to divvy up that role and it obviously starts with Brees.
Brees realizes that and has already considered the solutions, which are typically different for a player. The coach-player relationship is far different than the player-player relationship, even if you're talking about a quarterback who recently signed a five-year, $100 million contract.
The common assumption would be that Brees should take over Payton's role. That assumption is dangerous.
"The most important thing is don't do too much, be yourself," Brees said. "I think the challenge comes from trying to do too much and that's part of my personality. That's part of what I have to do, check myself so that I'm not trying to do too much or pressing to do too much. I just need to be me.
"Through the course of practice, I feel the vibe of practice and think to myself, 'What would Sean say in this situation? What would Sean say to this guy about what just happened?' And then I try to go do those things. But I do it in my way, so that I'm being me, my personality. I'm taking the things he has taught me and use it if I see it, notice it, recognize it, try to do it. But, like I say, it's within my personality."
Like Payton, Brees is a combination of charming crossed with hyper-controlling.
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For instance, on Sunday during the Saints' Hall of Fame exhibition victory over the Arizona Cardinals, he rarely took his eyes off the field even after his one series had ended. After leading the Saints on an efficient touchdown drive, Brees paid close attention to both the defense and offense and talked to the backup quarterbacks throughout.
Others have noticed his increased intensity since the start of camp.
"Drew is on every detail," tight end Jimmy Graham said. "He's that way anyways, but you can see where he's not leaving anything to chance. Where Coach Payton might have been the guy to say something about how we did this or that, Drew is the one making sure."
At the same time, Brees knows he's not in that ultimate position of authority. Where Payton had the power to essentially hire and fire players, Brees can't cross into that realm. Likewise, Brees doesn't want to step on the toes of other top veteran players, such as defensive end Will Smith or safety Roman Harper.
"I don't want to misconstrue this, I'm not out there trying to be Coach Payton," Brees said. "No one can replace Coach Payton. Nobody. But we are all, within ourselves, trying to do whatever we can to lead, to do our job and, to an extent because we don't have a head coach, to understand where there might be a little bit of a void.
"Where does the slack need to be picked up so that we can kind of share in that role of doing some of those little things. That's what I'm saying about on the practice field. Maybe the tempo is not good and Sean would say, 'Hey, we need to get this tempo up, get going.' I would probably do it anyway because I notice it, too, but it's almost as if he's talking in my head."
Brees said the Saints did go through some of this last season when Payton got hurt after being hit on the sideline during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. From that point on, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael called the plays instead of Payton, who was forced to watch two games from the coaches' booth.
In that way, Brees now has a trust in Carmichael's ability to handle the play-calling in games.
"Sean would be up in the box giving Pete little advice here and there, but Pete was calling the plays. He was the voice in my head. It had always been Sean Payton, no one else, but then I had to suddenly stop hearing Sean and hear somebody else," Brees said. "I have a long history with Pete. We go back to the Chargers in 2002, but this was the first time Pete had ever called plays. He did a phenomenal job, but it was an adjustment, it was a change.
"He was ready. He was so well prepared. You have to know Pete. He's really intelligent. He's understated, doesn't want the limelight, but is extremely intelligent and I love him as a coach and play-caller."
Still, play-calling is only one element of the job. An important element, but only part of the leadership equation. More important is the way Payton handled practices and the daily routine of the team. Payton had a way of putting a positive twist on a potentially negative instruction.
"Sean has a way of keeping it positive even when he's telling you, 'Don't screw up.' That way of saying it is a negative connotation. He keeps it positive," Brees said. "He'll say, 'Don't force it, be smart.' It sounds the same as 'Don't screw up,' but 'be smart' is more of a confidence thing. They may mean the same thing, but there's a difference and I immediately know what he's saying.
"He might say, 'The worst thing that can happen here is this, so let's avoid that.' These are things that we may have talked about many, many times before, so all he has to say is something to trigger that in my head. If he says, 'Be smart here,' I know exactly what he's saying to me."
Now, it's Brees who has to find a way to convey the same type of messages to a team that has enough talent to contend for a Super Bowl title.
If it can lead itself there.
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