New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton celebrates the touchdown by New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) in the second half of an NFL Wild Card Playoff game in New Orleans, La. Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018.

Advocate staff photo by LESLIE GAMBONI

For the better part of three seasons, as the New Orleans Saints stumbled to 7-9 and rumors swirled about the potential departure of Sean Payton to greener NFL pastures, the pundits kept saying and writing the same thing. 

Perhaps Payton's message had gone stale. 

A well-worn NFL cliché, steeped in the belief that a decade is too long for any coach to stay put in one place, backed up by the fact that Payton's mentor, Bill Parcells, had a permanent case of wanderlust.

Perhaps Payton, the thinking went, needed a fresh start to find a new source of energy.

The counterpoint hit the Internet this week.

There's the 54-year-old Payton, bounding into the middle of a victorious playoff locker room and bellowing "I need 53 jumping right now. 53!" Then Payton, surrounded by dancing players, broke into a dance that spawned a song from local musician Shamarr Allen, a raft of copycat moves from his players in the locker room and a dance craze that swept over New Orleans this week in the days leading up to Sunday's divisional playoff against Minnesota.

"There's always a time to have joy," wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., a veteran who has played for five different organizations and seven head coaches, said. "I think that was the best time for Sean to let his emotions go and be there with his team."

A young, fun-loving team that has danced its way back into the thick of the NFC playoffs. 


Payton's sixth playoff team in New Orleans is full of big personalities. 

There's defensive end Cameron Jordan, the superhero-loving, prop-wielding comedian in post-game interviews after a win, sending a bottle of wine to Cam Newton after a playoff win over the Carolina Panthers.

There's Alvin Kamara, the nose-ring wearing, joy-dispensing running back who keeps a limitless supply of Airheads with him on the sideline. Mark Ingram is the master of celebration, from leaping at Lambeau Field to mastering the Backpack Kid's signature dance moves. 

A bold, joyful group, imbued with the kind of confidence that has produced its own word in pop culture. 

"Swag, and you’ve got to put a capital 'S' on that," Ginn said. "That’s what we do, that’s what we kind of draw from. Everybody’s their own self, everybody isn’t just going down Drew (Brees) lane. ... Our team is a swagger-type team."

Some coaches might try to rein in the individuality. 

Payton has embraced it, provided, of course, that the personality does not affect the play on the field. An emotional coach who isn't afraid to speak his mind in interviews, Payton recognizes the benefits of letting his players live in their own skin. 

"It allows you to play free, it allows you to play like yourself, because he’s being himself," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "If he’s being himself, then everyone can relax, play ball and be themselves."


A good coach has to have more than one message. 

Football, like everything else, is constantly evolving, from the style of play to the Xs and Os to the players themselves. Any coach who fails to recognize the changing nature of the game gets left behind. 

"For instance, back in the old days, it was 'my way or the highway,' " defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, a former head coach in Oakland himself, said. "You just grinded them and yelled and screamed, and all those kinds of things. Now, I think people have changed, kids have changed. It’s more of a communication process."

Payton recognizes he's no longer coaching the battle-hardened, experienced group who made up the core of the Super Bowl team in 2009.

With the exception of veterans like Brees and Ginn, this group of Saints is built around a youthful core, and Payton has tailored his approach accordingly.

"That’s because he knows we’re millennials; that’s what he calls us," second-year safety Vonn Bell said. "We’re a young bunch. Young, just playing, out here having fun. He’s got to loosen up, too, sometimes. We make him dance, have fun."

Music plays a key role. Payton's impromptu dance came on the heels of the coach coining a new practice term, "Millennial Fridays," to describe the loud music that sometimes blares over the team's sessions late in the week. 

And anybody who has watched the Saints in warmups on Sundays can see the effect. Young stars like Michael Thomas and Marshon Lattimore feed off of the music, dancing between repetitions to get in the right frame of mind for the game to come.

Only a week ago, New Orleans brought in Mannie Fresh, the rapper, producer and DJ who gained fame with Cash Money Records, to help with the pregame music, and the star played specific selections made by some of the team's young stars during pregame warmups. 

Music is only one of the motivational tools Payton has used this season. The veteran coach searches long and hard for ideas, mining every available resource.

"I don't know, steal them, (other) coaches have them, assistants have them," Payton said. "We think about things a lot, just how to get our point across. I think that is our job as teachers."

The veteran coach has paid for pedicures for his team after the Saints were forced to wear painful spikes in Green Bay, mandated massages to help his team recover and organized team activities like the movies or scavenger hunts during the summer. 

Payton has also brought in speakers that range from Lawrence Brooks, a 108-year-old veteran of World War II, to Olympic legend Carl Lewis to former Saints with knowledge of the franchise's playoff history like Scott Fujita. 

"Each and every week, he’s always surprising you with something," veteran linebacker Gerald Hodges said. "But it's always a good surprise."


Payton can still bring the fire when he needs to. 

"He’s a little bit crazy on Sundays," nose tackle Tyeler Davison said. "I don’t know what you would call it, but he’s hyped up, he’s ready for the game. He expects everything to go right, he expects everybody to be doing their job, and if you don’t, then you’re going to know about it."

Veteran offensive tackle Terron Armstead remembers the first time he incurred Payton's game-day wrath perfectly. Armstead was a rookie, and on the third play of his first preseason game, the Arkansas-Pine Bluff product missed a block that led to Travaris Cadet getting drilled for a loss.

Payton was irate, and he ripped into Armstead, telling the rookie "I don't know if you can play in this league." 

Armstead, and other veteran Saints, have seen less of those outbursts on the sideline than they have in the past. 

"He’s relaxed a little more," Armstead said. "He’s got more confidence in guys, and he’s kind of allowed players to find their own way instead of just really drilling guys like he has in the past."

Famously intense during games, Payton's fire can lead him over the line, as the coach admitted after making a choking gesture at Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman during the first meeting between the two teams this season.

Payton was also fined $10,000 for coming off the sideline to argue with the referees in that game, and he said later that he probably allowed the game's circumstances to color his judgement too much. 

But when Payton's fury is directed elsewhere, his players often see a coach who is willing to fight tooth and nail for them. When Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans hit rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore with a dangerous cheap shot in the first meeting between the two teams, Payton erupted at the Buccaneers sideline, and the situation appeared to still be simmering when he shook hands with Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter after the season finale.

"I feel like it’s good to know your coach is going to stick up for his players like that," Davison said. "He’s going to feel emotional when he sees his players, something wrong done to them."

A lot of football coaches have lit up an officiating crew.

Payton's passion on the sidelines is a little more like a player's emotion. Football, perhaps more than any other sport, is an emotional game, particularly in the playoffs.

"It’s definitely good to see your coach as energized as your younger players," safety Rafael Bush said. "It kind of gives us a mental edge at times.”


The pressure builds in the playoffs. 

Payton, no stranger to the postseason, is well aware of the microscope the postseason places on the details. When New Orleans reached the postseason, the coaching staff removed the video games and ping pong table from the locker room, a sign that the team needs to be more focused now than ever. 

The locker room dance last week sent a message that the Saints can still let loose after a job well done. 

"I just think it means he wants everybody to feel the excitement, and not feel like you have to hold back in certain situations," said fullback John Kuhn, a playoff-tested veteran himself. "Sometimes you can get caught up in being so focused that you forget to enjoy your riches."

Payton's words — telling the entire 53-man roster to get up and dance — also underscore one of this team's defining characteristics, one that Kuhn, Ginn, Ingram and veterans all believe is a big part of this team's success.

For all of this team's individuality, the defining celebrations of this season have been collaborative affairs.

Ingram and Kamara conducting post-game interviews together, a ritual that started after their most dominant game of the season in Buffalo. The entire defense, sometimes even the players on the bench, rushing onto the field to pose for pictures after turnovers. An entire locker room erupting in joy after the team's first playoff win since 2013. 

"When you have a coach like that, that’s passionate, and we love each other, it loosens up the whole thing, the whole team," Bell said. "It all works together."

A team like the one the Saints have put together this season keeps a franchise fresh. 

And it can help a coach stay young. 

"Absolutely," Payton said. "It is one of the best parts of the job. We are kind of here in a bubble a little bit, coaches, we are here late and here early, but when you have players that want to work. ... yes, I'd definitely say that's one of the best parts about the job." 

Follow Joel A. Erickson on Twitter, @JoelAErickson.