The sleeves were curious.
Sometime late in the season, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton decided to pull out a pair of scissors and cut the sleeves off his hoodie, about mid-forearm. This is a look that should not copied.
Not because it has become associated with sloppiness — though Payton managed to make it look clean — but because this look is synonymous with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. And Belichick has done everything short of placing a trademark on it.
“I don’t have a problem emulating him or what they do,” Payton said.
Perhaps Payton only cut his sleeves because they were too long, as he first said. But there’s likely some truth to his throwaway line about wanting to be more like Belichick — which boils down to wanting to be more like his Super Bowl-winning Patriots.
Throw away the scandals and other whispers, and what’s left is one of the most successful organizations in professional sports over the past 15 years. Who doesn’t want to be more like that? Every coach, general manager or person associated with sports could learn something from the way the Patriots are run.
When I first arrived at The Advocate in July, the question everyone asked me was whether I saw similarities in how the Saints and Patriots are run. I wasn’t familiar enough with New Orleans at first, and when the inquisitor wouldn’t allow me to escape, I typically would say I could see parallels in the teams’ core values.
That part was true. In many ways, Sean Payton’s pursuit of success is similar to Belichick’s. Those things appear in the day-to-day operations, which isn’t surprising since both men have roots tracing back to Bill Parcells.
But in terms of team building and how the teams are constructed, there’s a bit of culture shock that comes with going from having a front-row seat in New England to one in New Orleans.
Spending my first four seasons covering the NFL in New England, I developed a shrewdness in how I view players. You’re forced to do so, since the team and its puppeteer is colder and harsher and shrewder than any other talent evaluator ever could be.
Belichick is the kind of guy who cuts the 53rd player on his roster the night before the Super Bowl — which is exactly what he did to Tiquan Underwood in 2011. You have to be able to anticipate these kind of moves.
Coming down here, when discussing players during training camp, close observers of the team brought up things like players being on the Super Bowl team, making it appear ideals like loyalty and sentiment exist — or at least appear to exist.
Belichick doesn’t have such feelings. Or if he does, he doesn’t allow them to affect how his roster is built. Look over any Patriots roster from the past several years and attempt to locate an immovable albatross. They don’t exist.
His theory is that he would rather get rid of a player a year early than a year late — regardless of what he means to the locker room or meant on the field. That’s why guard Logan Mankins, one of the leaders in the locker room and the face of the offensive line, ended up with Tampa Bay before this season, traded for a tight end no one had heard of.
Mankins was asked about restructuring his deal, balked and was dealt away. Belichick didn’t have time for such things and trusted his ability to develop a new starter. His goal is to retain financial flexibility and never get trapped by a contract.
His negotiating tactics are infamously shrewd. Belichick will set a value on a player and not move off it. Before last season, New England decided it wanted to retain running back LeGarrette Blount, offered him a one-year deal worth around $1.3 million and refused to negotiate further. The running back ended up signing a two-year deal worth $3.85 million with the Steelers before being released and returning to the Patriots.
The Saints’ approach is different. In many cases, they’ll pay what they have to pay to retain or obtain the players they want — often pushing money down the road. This makes it almost impossible to part ways with many players, since it would cost more money to release some of them than keep them on the roster.
There isn’t a right or wrong approach here. They’re just different.
While the Patriots operate in an area of flexibility, New Orleans often has to find ways to create it. Both teams figure out how to get things done. The difference is that New England likely will never have to cut a player for cap reasons or get locked down for too long with a player it wants to exile.
And that’s just the biggest difference. Look at how each team approaches the draft. Belichick values picks like simply having more than everyone else is the key to winning. He stresses value and will trade out of the first round if he thinks he can get a similar player in the second or third.
The Saints, meanwhile, have no issue trading away picks and will trade up to get the players they covet. Ironically, the players New Orleans often drafts end up being the same guys Patriots fans and media want in Foxborough — including Mark Ingram in 2011. The Patriots instead made a trade with the Saints for the pick used on Ingram and took Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in later rounds
Since 2006, New England has drafted 82 players to the Saints’ 53. New England isn’t necessarily better at drafting than New Orleans — in fact, one of the knocks on Belichick is that he doesn’t draft well, particularly at cornerback and wide receiver — but the Patriots give themselves more opportunities to be right by maximizing the number of picks at their disposal.
At the core, it seems both teams place a premium on scouting and feel the best way to succeed is to draft and develop players, acquire undervalued assets and make splashes in free agency only when the target can make a true difference.
So the sleeves fit.
Just maybe not in every regard.