Here is Sean Payton's biggest test. He doesn't have Drew Brees to bail him out any more. That was supposed to be the challenge for this year. That, and making Jameis Winston into a reliable quarterback.
Now, it's much bigger. The New Orleans Saints had their worst offensive performance since Payton became coach 15 years ago, losing 26-7 Sunday to Carolina. And the test of Payton's leadership is no longer just managing Good Jameis/Bad Jameis. Payton also has to overcome a hurricane, a pandemic, a homeless team, and an offensive line so battered that it resembles a broken dam.
"We did a number of things that you just can't do to win a game, offensively in particular," Payton said. "That's as poor as we've been in a long time around here, and that starts with me.
"We've got to do a better job going in. Our protection plan wasn't very good. It had nothing to do with us being short-handed with the coaches, or us being away or the COVID. All of those would be excuses."
Every coach and every wannabe coach should watch Payton now. This is going to be the stuff of coaching textbooks, success or failure. I'll predict success.
I like what he's doing already, calling on players to take personal responsibility and look forward, not back at all the problems. In the rearview mirror, the Saints are a shambles.
I'm watching, too. I'm the tennis coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and my team went from borderline top 25 two years ago to a mess last year because of COVID. No, a small-college tennis team is not an NFL franchise. But some things are universal in dealing with players, trying to get the most out of them, and keeping a team together.
My team last year fell apart. COVID forced classes online. Several players couldn't handle that academically, and some didn't see any reason to come back to Chicago and pay for dorm rooms. Under the pressures and emotions that came with life during a pandemic, a few players quit the team. The challenge was always to champion those who stayed, to tell them that they were the ones who mattered, even when they felt they had been abandoned in hard times.
I remember reading them the first lines of the Rudyard Kipling poem "If": "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …"
Payton's reaction to his team's horrific performance Sunday in trying circumstances was to go out of his way not to make excuses. His team followed his leadership.
Running back Alvin Kamara, who ran for five yards on eight carries, said it was "on us. It's our responsibility to do better …"
Even Winston, who had the worst passer rating of his career at 26.9, blamed himself for communicating poorly with his offensive line.
Payton had buy-in. He said all the right things, but will he and the Saints pass this test? Can you pass a leadership test with Winston, an inconsistent performer and leader?
Winston is a Ferrari that can be counted on only to drive to the grocery store and back. On one interception late in the first half, he brilliantly spun out of a sure sack and then inexplicably just chucked the ball 30 yards downfield out of control. He fell from the force of the throw like a kid in a snowball fight.
The Saints were without eight assistant coaches who failed a COVID test. And when you added in injuries, too, they were down 10 players, including four defensive starters. That doesn't even factor in that the Saints haven't slept in their own beds for nearly a month since they were displaced from New Orleans to Dallas after Hurricane Ida.
Winston was at his worst Sunday, but at his best a week earlier in humiliating a supposedly Super Bowl-ready Green Bay team.
The Saints' mess did play into Winston's head this Sunday, though. The problem with him is that he has game-breaking talents, running ability, and a big arm, but he's really only reliable as a game manager.
That's all he did against Green Bay last week, despite the five touchdowns. He threw for just 155 yards and stayed in control the whole way.
This week, the Saints were in chaos, even on the sidelines, as the six coaches who were there scrambled to do multiple jobs. Even rookie quarterback Ian Book was running around as a coach, trying to pitch in.
It has to be so tempting for Payton to just open Winston up and see if he can put it all together and make incredible plays to force the Saints out of this mess.
Payton is one of the great offensive minds, and he has got to be thinking up ways to take advantage of Winston's powers. At the same time, he has to be patient and controlled.
On Sunday, Winston threw for just 111 yards and two interceptions. The Saints were down 17-0 at halftime and had just 65 total yards of offense. They ended up with 128 yards and six first downs the entire game.
If the Saints are going to manage this year in the post-Brees era, then Payton and Winston will have to function as a team. Injuries have depleted the offensive line, but Payton can't allow Winston to be running for his life all the time.
When he does, instincts kick in. And Winston's instincts are to take massive chances.
Last year, my men's team was a COVID casualty. The season was canceled one year after the team finally reached a national level. My women's team won just once, against our biggest rival. It was a marathon with players coming from behind to win.
Our season starts Thursday, and because the women hung together last year under so many circumstances, they are stronger than ever. We're about to start winning.
For Payton, with a pandemic, hurricane, homelessness, rash of injuries, and an uneven quarterback, this is the ultimate coaching textbook. He kept Winston in check against Green Bay, so I think Payton will get things under control again.All coaching eyes are watching.