Exactly a year ago, the Saints lost to the Packers to fall to 0-4. Coach Sean Payton had been suspended for the 2012 season for his role in the bounty scandal, and the ramifications couldn't be more obvious: This was a rudderless team without its leader.
On Monday night, the Saints cruised to a 38-17 win over the previously undefeated Dolphins, and as September gives way to October, this reinvigorated group has all but wrapped up the NFC South title.
Sure, it sounds like hyperbole, but the Saints are 4-0, 2-0 in the division, and the rest of the South looks like this:
Yes, there's four months of football left. And yes, the Saints travel to Chicago and New England the next two weeks. But even if they drop those two games, who's going to make a move in the division to challenge them?
Despite whipping up on the Giants, the Panthers remain an enigma. (Can Mike Shula's offense make Cam Newton better? Will Ron Rivera have a job in December?) The Falcons have dropped two in a row and seem incapable of hanging with the Saints. And the Bucs are currently in the running for the NFL's most dysfunctional franchise.
But here's the thing: In 2010-2011, with Payton on the sidelines, New Orleans went 11-5 and 13-3 and never lost two games in a row. In 2009, the Saint started 13-0, hit a three-game skid, then went on to win the Super Bowl. Last season, Payton was in exile, the team lost four straight out of the gate and dropped three of its final five games.
So the notion that quarterback Drew Brees could make up for the sudden leadership void last season was a gross miscalculation. Put another way: Payton is integral to this team's success.
"There were plenty of times last year where I knew we were in a situation where hey Sean would say this and yet he wasn't there to say and to be honest with you he's the only guy who could say it," Brees said last week. "Because he would say it his way, whether it's a story or an anecdote or cracking a joke or whatever it might be."
And that's the takeaway. It's more than X's and O's, it's Payton's presence that has made a big difference.
"It's less about him being on the sideline for the game and more about him being here for an entire offseason and a preseason," right tackle Zach Strief told the Associated Press before the season.
"In the time we've been here, from 2006 to now, this team has always felt confident about winning,” he said last Thursday, via the Palm Beach Post. “But in order to win, it starts with the details. It's the OTAs (organized team activities), the minicamps, training camp, that full body of work that leads you to trying to play your best football each game.”
“He's a great teacher, motivator, mentor, as well as being a great head coach,” Brees added. “He has an excellent pulse of the team at all times, and knows the right message to deliver to our squad."
Whatever the particulars of the message, it's working. There's no reason to think that will change anytime soon, and the rest of the NFC South is almost certainly aware of this.