It’s hard to imagine now—after 65,000 passing yards, a string of NFL records, and a Super Bowl win—but the partnership between Drew Brees and Sean Payton got off to a rocky start. Brees came to New Orleans as a free agent in 2006, months after going down with a serious injury to his throwing shoulder in his final game as a member of the Chargers. Payton had been a promising assistant for the Cowboys and Giants and, at age 42, was getting his first shot at the top job. Together, they were tasked with turning around a franchise that had gone 3-13 the previous season in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
During the third week of the 2006 preseason, the Saints traveled to Indianapolis to face Peyton Manning and the powerhouse Colts. Early in the game, Brees badly missed on an out route toward the New Orleans sideline. “Drew couldn’t get the ball there,” says Zach Strief, a longtime Saints tackle who was a rookie that season. “His arm wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t ready. And Sean was so frustrated, he calls [quarterbacks coach] Pete Carmichael on the headset, who had come over from San Diego with Drew. And he goes, ‘Is this really all we have?’”
Typically, key contributors play just upward of one half in a team’s third preseason game. That night, the Saints’ offensive starters were forced to stay in until New Orleans scored a touchdown. It took nearly three full quarters. “We walked off the field after that game, and really after that whole preseason, and, I mean, we didn’t think we were going to win a game,” Strief says.
They went on to win 10 that regular season, take the NFC South title, and earn a trip to the NFC championship game. In the 13 years since, Brees and Payton have developed into the most prolific quarterback and play-caller combination in NFL history. They’ve finished among the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA a remarkable 12 times. Brees now owns the NFL records for career passing yards (77,416) and passing touchdowns (547), and he’s done most of that work with Payton at his side. As teams around the league have dealt with constant turnover, Brees and Payton have been able to perfect their communication and collaboration as the longest-tenured QB-play-caller duo in the league. “I know the stuff he likes and why he likes it,” Brees says. “And he’d say the same thing about me. It’s just that ability to kind of read each other’s minds at times that makes us effective.”
That connection lies at the heart of the Saints’ success. It’s helped them go 8-3 in Brees’s starts this season, and it’s the reason why some consider this team to be the best in the NFC. It may also be what determines whether the pair can soon bring a second title back to New Orleans.
During the Saints’ bye week in 2006, Payton and then–offensive coordinator Doug Marrone were walking past the team’s practice field when they saw a lone figure doing drills near the far end zone. “We’re like, ‘Who the fuck is out here throwing the football?’” Marrone says. “And as we get closer, we’re like, ‘Holy shit, it’s Brees. What the hell is he doing?’” They approached the quarterback, and Brees explained that he didn’t want to lose his rhythm during the off week. “He goes, ‘I’m playing a game in my mind. I’m going through a game, so I’ll never forget,’” Marrone says. “Sean looks at him and goes, ‘Well, Jesus, I hope we’re going to win that fucking game.’”
Brees has always been fanatical about his routine. He follows the same schedule each week, down to the most minor detail. That starts on Monday mornings, when he’ll get to the facility before the sun rises. He sits in the same chair every time and begins his study session. The rest of the Saints’ quarterbacks soon join, and over the next 24 hours they watch their next opponent’s previous three games, along with any others the staff believes to be relevant. As Brees has spent more time in the system, his role in the game-planning has grown. Much of his input comes in selecting the menu of plays that he can call at the line in a given week, but even beyond that he has a rare level of authority for a QB. New Orleans quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi estimates that over the past seven years, Brees has gone from suggesting a route depth or variation to devising entire play concepts. Luke McCown, the Saints’ backup QB from 2013 to 2015, was blown away by Brees’s ability to call back certain ideas. “You hear Tiger [Woods] after a golf tournament, ‘Seven-iron, 160 yards on no. 6,’” McCown says. “He’s able to recall every shot, for years, on that course. Drew’s the same. ‘When we played so and so back in 2013, they did this, and I kinda see that again.’ He can go back into his rolodex of study versus this coordinator and this team.”
By noon on Tuesdays, Brees has often loaded the meeting room white board with ideas. Some are variations on concepts the Saints have already installed. Some are borrowed from teams that they just watched on film. And others are designed completely on the spot. “By lunchtime that day, he’s already painted a picture of how this is going to go,” McCown says. Brees then snaps a few photos of the board, texts them to Payton, and the brainstorming session begins. “Usually after he sends that picture, five, 10 minutes later, that door is gonna fly open, and Sean’s gonna have his dry-erase marker,” McCown says.
McCown remembers one morning in 2014 when a notably animated Payton came bounding into the room and literally climbed on top of a table. “He’s yelling, ‘I’ve got a touchdown on the first play of the game,’” McCown says. Payton had realized that, against certain formations, the Falcons had a tendency to ignore a lone inline tight end on the back side of a play. “The funny part about all that was, just a day prior, Drew had already drawn that play up in his head,” McCown says.
Brees and Payton have distinct, disparate personalities. The way Strief puts it, Brees is quiet and regimented, whereas Payton can be more emotional and free-wheeling. They express their ideals differently, but the countless hours they’ve spent together have practically caused their minds to meld. “As you can imagine, with all these people being together for so long, a lot of times, the thoughts are the same,” Lombardi says. “The things that [Drew’s] drawn up, we’ve been thinking the same way.”
Lombardi has been Brees’s position coach for nine seasons, over two different lengthy stints. Carmichael has been with the franchise for as long as Brees and Payton, holding the offensive coordinator role for 11 seasons. That continuity has streamlined the Saints’ communication at every level. Payton isn’t present during each week’s installation meetings, but Lombardi and Carmichael are capable conduits between quarterback and head coach. “Joe and Pete do a really good job of explaining, ‘This was our thought process for [installing] a particular play,’” says current New Orleans backup quarterback Taysom Hill.
After putting in the game plan on Wednesdays and Thursdays, the Saints then use their practice time to see how concepts will translate from the board to the field, and that’s where the riffing reaches a different level. Every detail—from a receiver’s split to a certain personnel grouping to a particular motion—is tested and considered. “We might have an idea that we draw on the board, and it looks good, and then you get out on the field, and it’s like, ‘Ah, those receivers are a little close together,’” Lombardi says. Payton is notorious for throwing his visor down at specific spots as a way to identify aiming points for motions and routes, and Brees constantly tweaks where his receivers line up. “You quickly realize the difference between the NFL and college is the details, and how they matter,” says Bucs quarterback Ryan Griffin, who played in New Orleans in 2013 and ’14. “If you’re running the same route from the same split every time, it’s going to get jumped.”
Along with varying their formations and alignments, the Saints also get creative with the routes themselves—both the combinations and the players who run them. McCown estimates that Brees and Payton probably add 30 to 35 plays to the playbook throughout a season, but most alterations involve subtle changes to the core concepts within the Saints’ established menu. Those modifications allow New Orleans to construct offensive game plans that seem brand new each week, but are still easily digestible for the offensive personnel.
Most of the tweaks happen during midweek practices, but occasionally the experimentation can linger into the weekend. Heading into a matchup against the Dolphins in 2013, Griffin remembers the Saints installing a play in which running back Darren Sproles was supposed to run a flat route from the slot. The night before the game, Payton pulled Sproles and Brees aside, flipped on the film, and pointed out that if Brees recognized a specific coverage at the line of scrimmage, he could audible to a wheel route up the sideline. The next day, they got exactly the look they wanted, Brees flashed a hand signal to his receivers, and Sproles broke wide open for a 48-yard gain. “They understand players, they understand weaknesses, and they understand how to exploit and take advantage of weaknesses that an opposing defense may have,” says Mike Neu, who served as the Saints’ QBs coach from 2014 to 2015. “They use all the information possible.”
None of the dozen or so people interviewed for this story can recall Brees and Payton ever getting into a knockdown, drag-out argument about any one play. They’ll go at each other during the Saints’ famed quarterback challenges, but their tiffs are usually reserved for claims that a throw didn’t hit a target, or that one of them got clipped by a tennis ball thrown by an equipment guy. When it comes to X’s and O’s, the tone is always civil. “It’s not unusual if someone’s got a vision for something and the other guy doesn’t,” Lombardi says. “But they’ve been together for so long, and they have such respect for each other, it’s never a combative thing. There’s kind of a systematic way of going about it.”
There are moments when Brees will anticipate a defense using one coverage against a formation, while Payton imagines a different reaction. But the dialogue that emerges from those disagreements often leads to creative solutions. “Of course we have those conversations where he’ll say, ‘I see it playing out like this,’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, I think the guy plays it more like this,’” Brees says. “And he’s like, ‘Trust me.’ You know what that does? It allows us to work on a concept to where it fulfills the vision that we both have. Where as he may think, ‘The ball’s going to this guy, I guarantee.’ Well, if they don’t give us that look, then I’d rather have this route as a complement that I can get to.”
In the rare instances when the two are at odds, former teammates and coaches say their arguments have the feel of a pair of lawyers pleading their respective cases. And film becomes a crucial piece of evidence. “We’re constantly talking throughout the week about different concepts,” Brees says. “What are you seeing? What am I seeing? He may install a play, and I’ll say, ‘Explain the vision to me.’ And he will, and I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ve got it.’ That happens all the time, and that’s happened ever since I got here.”
For McCown, that ability to see the game through the other’s eyes is what makes the Brees-Payton relationship special. Many quarterbacks have a one-play-at-a-time mentality, which may be useful for shaking off a rough interception or missed opportunity, but can also limit the ability to see how an entire plan fits together. Not Brees. “Drew very much does not see in individual plays,” McCown says. “He can divide up the game. He’s very good at seeing the big picture, the sequencing of it. How this run is going to affect my third-and-short when I come back with play action off that look. His ability to see ahead and plan ahead like a play-caller matches up very well with how Sean sees things.”
Payton, meanwhile, is uniquely positioned to see the game like a quarterback. A former college QB at Eastern Illinois, Payton got his lone chance to play in the NFL during the 1987 strike. Where a lot of play-callers struggle to understand how a play’s tiniest intricacies can impact a passer’s mind-set, Payton is always considering how a given layout will alter Brees’s process. “[Sean] understands how to use formations, shifts, and motions [to get] into situations that give Drew a look and leverages where he can stand up and say, ‘I like that. I like the way that looks,’” McCown says. “That gives him confidence before the snap to see how this is going to turn out.”
Brees’s and Payton’s dual perspectives give the Saints a huge advantage, but the differences between their roles also provide some useful dividing lines for resolving conflict. Because Payton spends so much time studying and considering the offense as a whole, Brees will often bow to his expertise on matters of alignment and formation. When it comes to route depths and understanding the nuances of his receivers, Brees typically wins out. And in those infrequent incidents when they do reach an impasse, the man with the ball in his hands usually has final say. “I would say that at the end of the day, Drew wins out 90 percent of the time,” Hill says. “But those situations are so few and far between. If we’re having this much conversation over one play, we don’t need it. We have 130 other plays that we can call that would work for that situation.”
McCown played for six different franchises over his 13-year career, and says the Saints’ Saturday-night routine is unlike anything he experienced in the NFL. The night before a game, following a team meeting and a short walk-through, Payton, key offensive staffers, and the quarterbacks gather around 9:15 p.m. for what they call “the dot meeting.” It’s not unusual for a play-caller and QB to take a final pass through the call sheet on Saturday and identify the best plays for specific situations. But McCown had never seen it go much further than that. “Every coordinator says, ‘Tell me what you like, and I’ll call it.’” McCown says. “But that would be the extent of your input in what’s being called.” In the Saints’ version, the discussion isn’t limited to a few plays. “They’re dissecting just about every play in the game plan,” McCown says.
With everyone else in the room silently looking on, Brees and Payton go through nearly every call on the menu. If Brees likes a call, that play gets a dot. Those are often the only options called during a game, but sometimes a game plan dictates that a play that wasn’t dotted works its way into the rotation. That’s another reason the exercise is so useful—it eliminates the possibility that Brees has to run a play that hasn’t been thoroughly vetted.
By the time the meeting ends, the two have played out the entire game before it happens. “We talk so much about situations,” Brees says. “And I’ll say, ‘OK, when this situation arises, this is what I think.’ So when that situation comes around in the game, I can anticipate what’s coming. That makes me a better player, to be able to anticipate the play-caller and why he’s calling what he’s calling.” The sessions typically don’t last longer than an hour, but McCown has heard tales of them going deep into the night.
McCown looks back on those meetings as some of the best moments from his career. “As kind of the fly on the wall, you be quiet,” he says. “You just sit there quietly, and you observe greatness.” He imagines that watching those sessions was akin to watching a great painter draw an initial sketch, or observing the rehearsal for a famous ballet. For an hour every week, he got to see two masters perfect their craft right in front of him. When he’s told people about those meetings, many have asked why they’re not standard in the NFL. If the Saints have had so much success with them, why don’t other teams try the same thing? Simple, he says. Because they can’t. “You can only do that when those two guys are on the same page all the time,” McCown says. “They’ve been that way for 14 years now, 15 years.”
Over a decade and a half together, Brees and Payton have built a partnership founded on trust, honesty, and the willingness to put their egos aside. In the process, they’ve done more than just rewrite the record books and revolutionize football in New Orleans. They’ve formed what could go down as the best QB-play-caller marriage in NFL history. “It’s just sort of a unicorn that rarely happens,” McCown says. “I don’t know that you’ll ever see this type of pairing again—the greatest QB of all time, I believe, and one of the greatest play-callers of all time—teaming up for this type of run. I don’t think it’ll be replicated.”