Wheelbarrows of money and fast-food feasts: The Saints have the loosest locker room in the NFL playoffs

Dan WetzelColumnist

METAIRIE, La. — On Monday, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton had a wheelbarrow full of $201,000 and the Vince Lombardi Trophy rolled into a team meeting to show the hardware and hard cash (via playoff payout shares) that players could take home if they can manage three more victories.

No “one game at a time” mantra here, let alone “one practice at a time” or “one rep at a time” or anything else from the iron-fisted Coaching 101 handbook.

Here’s the prize, here’s the goal, here’s what we are here for.

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Welcome to the Big Easy, where in 2019 Payton feels comfortable that his unique group of Saints doesn’t need horse blinders to focus them on the minute tasks at hand. Instead they can embrace the reality of the playoffs, where the Saints aren’t just the NFC’s No. 1 seed headed into Sunday’s home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, but the betting favorites to win it all in Atlanta next month and still concentrate on what they need to do.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,'” rookie defensive end Marcus Davenport said of the guard-protected pile of money and the championship trophy. “‘Now let’s get to practice.'”

If there are pressures associated with a favorites role, they weren’t visible here Thursday at the Saints practice facility. The locker room saw players shooting on a toy basketball hoop, lounging on oversized couches and engaging in a spirited debate over one of America’s most pressing questions: Whataburger or In-N-Out?

Meanwhile, Davenport and his fellow defensive linemen snacked on chicken from Wingstop, part of their traditional Thursday, rookie-purchased, meal that has turned superstitious. The crew ate Wingstop each week during the team’s 10-game win streak, switched to Sonic after that was snapped and are now back to the chicken joint for the playoffs.

“Hopefully we eat it in Atlanta,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said.

This is where the Saints are at, not brooding over avenging last year’s playoff disappointment courtesy of a crushing, final play loss to Minnesota. Not fretting about seizing a late-career opportunity for quarterback Drew Brees. Not appearing overwhelmed by the moment.

This place is notably loose, especially for January.

Head coach Sean Payton has created a surprisingly awesome locker room environment in his 12th season in New Orleans. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
Head coach Sean Payton has created a surprisingly awesome locker room environment in his 12th season in New Orleans. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

“It’s all fun when you’re winning,” said veteran tight end Ben Watson, who has played for New England, Cleveland, Baltimore and now, for a second time, here. “I think every team has a different character to it and different personality to it. Some places you go and that would be frowned upon and that is how they succeed. Here, it is OK. We are winning and guys are on top of their assignments and they know what to do and they are prepared. Each team is different.”

Even Payton is different. A disciple of Bill Parcells, among others, Payton wasn’t into this for most of his now 12-season stint with the Saints. The pingpong table that now occupies prime real estate in the locker room was pulled out back then. Same for the basketball hoop.

This was about business. It still is, just in a different manner.

“They’ve been doing [basketball] since I got here the second time,” said Watson, who joined the team in October, but was previously with the Saints from 2013-15. “The first time I was here they didn’t have a basket. I quickly learned when I came back for the second stint, this is how we do things now and just get in line and roll with it.”

The Saints are certainly rolling. They are 13-3 and own home-field advantage in the playoffs, meaning bringing clubs to the Superdome, one of the most difficult road environments in the NFL. They beat both the Eagles, 48-7, and the second-seeded Los Angeles Rams (by 10) here earlier in the season. And while the Cowboys defeated the Saints on Thanksgiving, well, that was in Dallas.

In a wide-open NFL playoff, this is the main event.

“Right now, it’s all there in front of us,” Watson acknowledged.

So Payton isn’t scared of letting the team know it. He isn’t, apparently, afraid they’ll look beyond anyone or anything.

“I know he has faith in us and he knows we will prepare right,” Davenport said.

“I think he just knows how this team is,” defensive tackle Tyeler Davison said. “We have that mentality of the next thing. This game right here is the most important because it’s the next game. He knows that about us. I think he does a good job evaluating this certain group of guys. Maybe if this was a different team, the team from 2009, the team from 2013, the team from 2021, he might treat them differently.

“We just are who we are. We’re going to do what we’ve been doing all year. You’ve got to have that perfect balance between working hard and having fun and enjoying to come to work every day.”

The wheelbarrow was there for all to see, the money and the glory that this tournament delivers. And it said as much about what Payton believes is the destination, as the mindset that the Saints will use to get there.

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