METAIRIE, La. — Sean Payton was typically charged up.
One minute, the New Orleans Saints head coach was inviting a visitor onto the balcony outside his office to show the detail of the practice fields — painted with fresh Buffalo Bills logos.
The next minute, he’s whipping out a folder filled with charts, graphs and articles, making a point about proper rest and peak efficiency.
Then he turns on the TV monitor and explains why he paid for 21 pedicurists to converge on Saints headquarters following a game at Green Bay last month. He told the players that if they wore the longer, screw-in studs — which are harder on the feet than many of today's lightweight shoes — for the game against the Packers at Lambeau Field, he’d spring for pedicures.
“Half these guys never had a pedicure,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports. “I said, ‘Some of you with nasty feet, you might have to give ‘em a big tip, but I got the pedicure.’ That’s winning and losing.”
Payton used video to back up his contention, illustrating why the correct cleats had a role in the six-game winning streak the Saints will take to Buffalo this weekend.
He highlighted at least a dozen plays from the Cincinnati Bengals’ overtime loss at Green Bay in September. On the monitor, several Bengals are seen slipping repeatedly, including rookie back Joe Mixon on a pivotal third-and-1 play with less than five minutes left in regulation. Rather than salting the game away, the Bengals got a botched exchange, which eventually enabled a tying score from the Packers with 17 seconds to go.
“Look! Wrong shoes!” Payton blurted as he watched it again.
And after New Orleans players struggled with traction at London's Wembley Stadium in Week 4, Payton got his point across about using the proper shoes.
Sporting the appropriate footwear, the Saints beat the Packers, got their pedicures, and even the equipment staff got a game ball.
But there’s a bigger picture here. New Orleans (6-2) is one of the NFL’s biggest surprises, even as Payton's vision for the team comes into focus.
Though quarterback Drew Brees is one of the most prolific passers in NFL history, Payton has longed for the style that carried the Saints to the Super Bowl crown in 2009. Although Brees and Payton are still joined at the hip, so much else has changed. Payton has coveted a stronger running game and big-play defense to support the veteran passer.
Guess what? The Saints finally have that again, thanks in part to a stellar rookie class. Brees, in fact, even called it the “formula.”
Ironically, Brees is on pace to throw for his fewest yards since he hoisted the Lombardi Trophy with that 2009 team. Likewise, the running game, fueled by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, is accounting for a higher percentage of rushes (43.4%) than for any Saints club since 2009, according to ESPN.
And the overhaul of the defense has taken hold. In 2015, the Saints allowed more TD passes (45) in a season than any unit in NFL history. Now, with a budding star in rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the secondary is jelling.
“There’s confidence,” Brees told USA TODAY Sports. “We’ve won in a lot of different ways. The formula has been validated.”
This is what born-again football looks like.
The Saints started 0-2 — just as they had in the three previous seasons, each time finishing 7-9. Why has it been different this time?
“You talk about 7-9 last year, a lot of those guys aren’t here,” defensive end Cameron Jordan told USA TODAY Sports. “Two years ago, most of those guys aren’t here. Three years ago, me and (safety) Kenny Vaccaro might be the only two (defenders) left.”
Jordan, a seventh-year pro who may be in the midst of his best season, is the leader of a defense with eight starters who have joined the team since the start of 2016.
And yes, he got the pedicure.
“I appreciated that, on his dime,” Jordan said.
Jordan and Brees, 38, admit that despite their years in the league, they aren’t always sure of what to expect from Payton to spice up the environment.
“He keeps it fresh,” Brees said. “At the end of the day, it’s a way to challenge you. It just gives you an edge.”
As much as Payton is a glass half-full type of guy — bullish on the chemistry, resilience, youth and balance of his team — he sees warning signs
“When you win, there are things that can get overlooked,” he said.
Ted Ginn Jr. muffed two punt returns in Sunday's defeat of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The week before that, Ingram lost two fourth-quarter fumbles. Turnovers and defensive lapses led to the Saints squandering a huge lead against Detroit in Week 6.
“Hey, we’re going to play in bigger games, and that may be the difference,” Payton said.
He knows. There’s a lot of time left for the Saints to really prove their worth.
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