In Payton and Brees: The Men Who Built the Greatest Offense in NFL History, veteran New Orleans football scribe Jeff Duncan tells the story of the partnership of the two men who have been major contributors to the best run of football in the annals of the New Orleans Saints. Sean Payton arrived as head coach in 2006 and Drew Brees arrived as quarterback that same season, and except for Payton's year-long suspension for Bountygate and a handful of missed games by Brees (most notably 2019's five-game absence thanks to a thumb injury), they have been the men leading the team and the offense ever since.
There are a couple different ways to approach a book like this one. The easiest might have been to do a sort of tick-tock of the greatest hits, highlighting Payton and Brees' role in the favorite memories of Saints fans, perhaps starting with the Steve Gleason punt block in the Saints' return to the Superdome in 2006 and ending with the outrages of the past three playoff defeats: the Minneapolis Miracle, the NOLA No-Call, and Kyle Rudolph's possible push-off. That sort of tick-tock, focusing on the specific details of individual games, is most useful in a single-season book. If you've read enough football books, you know the formula. It's a fine one in the right context, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it in Duncan's earlier book From Bags to Riches that had a greater focus on the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl team. Supplement it with a decent chunk of background material, and you have a paint-by-numbers of the kind that got me bored with reading football books. Fortunately for us, that's not what we get in Payton and Brees.
Instead, Duncan is able to use his long experience reporting on both men over the years to build us much more of a portrait of the process of how they operate. In the past couple of years, I've been thinking about football largely in terms of the dimensions a team has, and whether they choose to present those dimensions from a generic or custom look.
The difference between the latter concepts is easier to explain. At one end is the Shanahan offense and its ability to run many different plays from the same base look with the same set of personnel on every play. Sean McVay's Rams Super Bowl team is probably the most famous recent example of the type, spending 92% of their time in 11 personnel (as noted in Football Outsiders Almanac 2019). Payton's offense is the opposite of that. In Chapter 9, Duncan references a game against the St. Louis Rams where the Saints had used all 12 of their skill-position players by the eighth snap of the opening-play drive. This hearkens back to the days of reading about Bill Walsh in Dr. Z's New Thinking Man's Guide and how he would come up with different formations regularly and the way to get a handle on them was not by watching the previous week but maybe by going back three or six or more weeks.
This degree of personnel and formation versatility that Payton has embraced also helps shed light on something else. Another way to consider what I think of as dimensions is "the ways in which players and schemes can win." One thing that fits naturally with Payton's strategy is using each player only to win in very particular ways. Wide receiver Robert Meachem had a lot of success in New Orleans, finishing in the top ten in receiving DVOA three years in a row, then he signed with the Chargers the year I was doing the San Diego chapter in FOA. Asked to win in a wider variety of ways than he had in the past, Meachem flopped and was back in the Crescent City a year after signing a four-year, $25.9-million deal. That a couple different Saints deep threats (Devery Henderson in 2006 and 2008, Kenny Stills in 2013) have led the league in receiving DVOA probably says more about the role than the player.
Oh, and it also says plenty about the triggerman. Payton's personnel and formation versatility lets him craft particular plays designed to take advantage of particular aspects of the opposing defense. Duncan goes into detail on a particularly nice example of this, a touchdown from the Minneapolis Miracle game directly inspired by the Vikings' defensive response to a play the Indianapolis Colts had run the year before.
This type of bespoke gameplanning coupled with the lack of need to change created by long continuity leads to calls with as many as 17 words and numbers, with references lost in memory. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael talks about plays with a tweak to attack San Francisco ending up in the playbook with a tag "49er Right" basically forever. Quarterback Garrett Grayson, a third-round washout, spoke of his difficulty learning the playbook, and it's easy to understand why. The challenge will be finding the right way to scale it back for the next New Orleans quarterback, given Brees' role in the huddle in translating the call to what everybody needs to know to do on a particular play. Teddy Bridgewater in his interim stint last year unsurprisingly got shorter calls.
To speak of Brees' role merely as the facilitator and explainer of play calls far undersells his role as one of the best NFL quarterbacks of the past 15 years and more. Beyond describing some of his more precise throws, Duncan references this Sports Science segment and how it displays not only Brees' precise accuracy but the metronomic consistency with which he throws. Add in a ridiculous level of competitive fire (without being over the top as Duncan's recent article for The Athletic suggests Michael Thomas' may be), overall great athleticism and ability to perceive all aspects of the field, and an absurd commitment to preparation, and Brees' greatness seems almost overdetermined. That is obviously selling him short, but I found those particular aspects less personally interesting and thought-provoking than the parts focusing on Payton.
Despite his Sunday antics, Payton comes across as normally a much calmer figure and one not as seemingly enamored of management-by-conflict as, say, Jon Gruden. Consequently, the Payton-Brees relationship comes across as not particularly volatile, and maybe without Brees pushing back against the coach as much as he could or maybe the team could benefit from. When Payton's standards (the reasonable ones, not his concern early in his coaching tenure with things like the height of the Christmas tree in the team's lobby) started to slip in the mid-2010s, it fell to offensive tackle Zach Strief to confront Payton rather than being addressed early by Brees. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into a particular story.
Overall, Payton and Brees is a fine look at a head coach-quarterback pairing that has helped define the NFL for the past fifteen years. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to any interested football fan, not just Saints fans.