Brees, the legendary gunslinger who will eventually find himself in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, retired earlier this year. That leaves Payton, who coached the 13-time Pro Bowler from 2006-20, feeling nostalgic and lonely without his star quarterback.
Sean Payton said he recently sent Drew Brees a heartwarming text message
Brees and Payton weren’t just a quarterback and head coach. They were partners working together to constantly keep the Saints in the playoff race and competing for a Super Bowl title.
For years, Brees and Payton had a routine that went beyond which plays to call on 3rd-and-long. In a recent interview with NBC Sports’ Peter King, the Saints’ longtime head coach said he looked at two empty seats across the aisle from him while recently riding on the Saints’ travel bus. Brees had occupied that spot on every Saints road trip since the two teamed up in 2006.
Payton sent a photo of the empty seats to Brees and included a heartfelt caption: “Every once in a while, I miss you.” When he spoke with King, the veteran coach reflected on what it felt like having yet another reminder that his longtime quarterback is gone.
“I’m all alone. Remember the movie Papillon? I felt like the leper in the penal colony in Papillon,” Payton joked.
Brees and Payton are one of the greatest quarterback-coach duos in NFL history
We can all agree that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are the greatest coach and quarterback duo in NFL history. Before you argue, just think about the six Super Bowl rings in 20 years and ask yourself if it’s worth following through with that retort.
We know the basic numbers on Brees’ resume. In 15 seasons with the Saints, he shredded defenses for 68,010 yards, 491 touchdowns, and 190 interceptions. He’s responsible for leading the Saints to a thrilling victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 44.
Numbers never lie, but context is important, too. Before the 2008 season, only one quarterback in league history, Miami Dolphins icon Dan Marino, had thrown for over 5,000 yards in a season. Over his final 13 seasons, Brees hit that mark five times. Entering the 2021 season, there have only been 12 such instances in NFL history.
It helped that Payton opened up the Saints’ passing game and perennially put dangerous weapons, from Reggie Bush through Michael Thomas, around his star quarterback. Brees went from a slightly above-average starter with the then-San Diego Chargers to an NFL legend.
If you want one more statistic, here’s this: The Saints finished with a non-losing record in nine of Brees’ 15 seasons. From 1967-2005, they only accomplished that 13 times.
Payton can only hope Jameis Winston becomes his next Brees
The reality of the situation is that Brees is now working for NBC Sports instead of slinging touchdowns. Payton is all alone with a quarterback room consisting of Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, and rookie Ian Book.
If Book sees significant snaps in 2021, it means the Saints are either in a total freefall or the other two are out for health reasons. As of publication, Hill and Winston remained in competition for the right to succeed Brees.
Given that Winston is younger (he only turns 28 in January, while Hill turned 31 on Aug. 23) and has shown impressive accuracy on his throws this preseason, he might be the Saints’ best option. Payton can continue using Hill as a gadget player who can take snaps at quarterback and tight end or even see action on special teams.
If Winston is the answer, Payton should hope he can get a decade out of him the way he did with Brees. No one is asking him to average 33 touchdowns per year and gradually reduce his interceptions the way Brees did, although the Saints certainly wouldn’t argue against those numbers.
Perhaps the time will come when Winston will sit in Brees’ old seat on the bus. For now, however, Payton is all alone in that section.