Q&A: Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton
by David Oliver
Outside the bubble, it was cold and rainy. Inside, the rookies, new veterans and some returning veterans had just concluded their third day of drills, working on nomenclature, formations, blocking assignments and position workouts. By now everyone was tired. The coaching staff had more work to do reviewing the three days’ activities. Coach Payton graciously agreed to an interview. We stood there in the dome, empty now of all players, coaches and media, with the background hum of the work crew putting things in their proper order. Coach Payton patiently answered every question I asked, never said, “I have to go,” or let on how busy he was. He is an intense, excited and informative young coach from whom we can expect some new and dynamic offensive sets. The interview follows in a straight question and answer format. He had a lot of good things to say, so here it is, in his words:
Q. How has your professional life changes since your appointment as coordinator?
A. (The Coach started off in the “we” talking about the entire staff)…challenge for us an offensive staff is really to best utilize the players we have. We’ve got some different guys, certainly at the running back position; we’ve got a lot of talented players with various skills; the same way at receiver. The most important thing we can do is put these guys in the best position to do the things that they do well – multiple formations, multiple personnel groups. As far as the coordinator, I just think from an organizational standpoint, your time is taxed a little bit more in terms of preparing the overall plan, both run and pass. We’ve got a tremendous staff, I think, a lot of experience, guys like (Jim) McNally, Mike Pope, Jim Skipper, these guys have about 15-20 years apiece; Jimmy Robinson has 10 years in the league and Mike Gilhamer, so overall, I think, we’ve worked real well together and there’s been a lot of cohesiveness, so far. It’s been pretty good.
Q. Who actually designs the plays?
A. Well, it comes from the group. When you talk about putting together your run plan or you’re putting together your pass plan, we meet. We spent the last 4 weeks, the last month and a half this off season researching various teams in the league…there are trends that take place during the course of a 2 or 3 year period; it’s important to stay on top of those trends, to see where the offenses are going. So I told our players when we met for the first time (this season) that we were going to have the best plan, the best script going in football, and I believe that. We’ll do a good job as coaches of putting them in the position; we’ll give them the right scheme, so collectively as a group, to answer your question, we sit down and we go through the run and the pass and guys have suggestions. We’re all guys who have seen a lot of tape and been in a lot of offenses. The key is putting it all together.
Q. The NFL is known as a “copycat” league. The Rams have been very successful with a particular type of offense, something the Giants have never utilized. Can we expect more Rams type offensive sets?
A. At the same time the biggest mistake you can make is try to be something that you aren’t, unless your personnel is such. The greatest thing they did is they utilized their personnel well, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Holt and those guys. They did a tremendous job of getting it to their skill guys. Hopefully, we can do the same thing with our guys, whether it’s Ike Hilliard, Amani Toomer, Tiki Barber, Ron Dayne, our tight ends, Pete Mitchell, Howard (Cross). We’ve got a unique set of players, so each team is a little different and I think there needs to be a personality about ourselves. I don’t promise we’re going to be like St. Louis, I don’t promise we’re going to be like a West Coast team, or Washington Redskins; we’re going to be like the NY Giants, but there’s going to be a personality about us that’s unique because of the chemistry of our guys. We have different players, it’s important to utilize their skills in the best possible way.
Q. The Giants have never had an offensive personality. Most critics use terms like boring or inconsistent to describe our game planning. This year are we actually going to see something a little different?
A. Hopefully a year from now they’ll feel good about where we’ve come. We’ve got a lot of steps to make, we’ve got a lot of improvement to make. The off-season has been great, we’ve been here the whole time. (The players) they’re hungry to do well and we’ll take it one step at a time. I’m excited about who we have. I like our players, I like our makeup. I think we really helped ourselves in the off season with the acquisition in the offensive line, with the acquisition of a number of players, including the draft. We’re fired up about the guys we drafted offensively, I like them a lot.
Q. Last year we had problems with the offensive line. Brown (Lomas) and Parker (Glenn) are men, not boys. But the Giants run a lot to the left side. If you run behind Brown and Parker, they’re not the youngest guys. Can they go?
A. You certainly design your running game around the strengths of your offensive line and at the same time, there will be an “attitude” that those guys have already shown, a commitment. Lomas Brown is an ex-Pro Bowl player, Parker is a veteran guy, ‘Zig’ Ziegler, I call him Zig, is coming in and he has shown leadership at center. So with these new additions, there is a learning that takes place, but we’re fired up about their experience. Those are guys we liked and targeted and we’re glad to have them here.
Q. Are you going to be upstairs or downstairs during games?
A. Probably downstairs again. The benefit of getting a play to the QB as quickly as we can, removing a guy from the loop, is a positive for me. As fast as he can get the play, where he can audible or check at the line of scrimmage, the better off we are. If I’m upstairs, the problem is we’ve got to go through somebody to the QB. So I prefer to be downstairs, and I plan to be downstairs.
Q. What is your assessment of Kerry’s (Collins) leadership?
A. I’ve been impressed. He’s done a nice job in the off-season. He’s been out here, these guys have been in the bubble every day, whether we’re with them or not. He’s done a tremendous job of taking the initiative to do the little things. There’s so many things, especially with free agency. You can make an argument that you have a new offense, you really do, every year. Say you’ve got your same 11 guys every year coming back, and we’re going to make subtle changes, but there is a new look to the locker room, there is a new look both on offense and defense, in regards to the number of new people we brought in. We’re excited about it, but with that there entails some off-season work that maybe 15 years ago didn’t exist because of the continuity that teams had.
Q. How about Mike Cherry?
A. I like Mike. He’s been here, he’s worked hard at it, he’s got a big arm, he’s talented, he’s strong. The repetitions are going to be positive for him. This is the first year where, going in, he is going to be in a position where he can get some preseason game reps, and have some games and get some quality reps. It will be important for him in the pre season.
Q. Do you think Garrett can carry the team if Kerry goes down?
A. Sure do. We wouldn’t have brought him here if I didn’t. I think all of us starting with Ernie Accorsi, Jim Fassel, we were evaluating the back up position. We wanted to find a guy that was certainly capable of going in and winning games, and he’s proven he can do that. He did it in Dallas when Aikman went down throughout his career there. He’s a guy that’s a very intelligent guy that knows the game well. I think he’s a tremendous influence just in our meetings and in the locker room. He is very experienced and he has a sharp football mind. I like him.
Q. How about the big two draft choices…?
A. (Animated, even before I finished the question) Both those two, Dayne and Dixon, both Rons, I like them both. Ron (Dayne) came in here and in 3 days absorbed everything, picked it up fast. He’s a quick learner, he’s got very athletic feet, he’s gifted in his vision and I really like what I saw just in the 3 day period with him. I’m extremely pleased with him, extremely pleased with Dixon. I think you guys came out here and watched him run around. He is talented and he can fly. I think our guys did a great job of targeting a guy like him, who maybe a lot of people didn’t have, but as you talk, and more and more, you visit with people, most people did have him on their board, and a lot of them had him in that same round we did. Regardless, he’s a guy we’re fired up we got. I came in here, and you never know, you want to see him run around, and after the first practice all of us were giddy in the locker room. We’re excited.
Q. Now for your test question. I want to know about a mystery candidate, #15, the kid from Montana?
A. (Coach repeated the number and “kid from Montana” and before I gave him the name he said) Jeremy Watkins. He’s a guy that came in and actually did a pretty good job this week. If you watch some of the stuff on tape, he ran by a corner yesterday for a TD. He runs real good routes, he’s a smart kid. Shoot, I was excited to see him out here. We needed the numbers to help us and as we went through he started improving and really showed us something. He’ll have his work cut out for him, but at the same time he’s very attentive, smart and he does the right things. There’s something to be said for that.
Q. What is your general, overall philosophy of offense?
A. My general, overall philosophy of offense revolves around what players you have offensively. The greatest mistake a coach can make is to try to mold a group of players into a certain system that they’re not suited for. So, I guess if you said what was my upbringing, I was brought up in the West Coast system with Jon Gruden and the Philadelphia Eagles. At the same time I will pick and choose some spots from that system and also build around the strength of a good running game. We’ll run the football well this year. We’re going to make an emphasis on that. I think it’s important to our defense and the overall team. But at the same time, I think we’ve got some speed outside where we can take advantage of teams that are loading up against the run.
Q. Have there been any rough spots between you and Coach Fassel during the transition?
A. No. It’s been wonderful. He’s been fantastic, I mean that. He’s been tremendously supportive of what we’re trying to do and helpful at the same time.
Q. Looking into the crystal ball, what kind of start to the season do you anticipate?
A. I think in this league any more, you look at the schedule and you begin to look at your games and where you are playing them. So much has to do with when you are playing a team. We open up with Arizona at home and they’re a team that beat us twice last year, and that will be a dogfight. They’ve improved themselves in the off season, they got a great running back in the draft. We go to Philadelphia and they’ve certainly improved a lot. We were barely able to get out of there last year. It will be their home opener and that game has always been a tough game. It’s a cliche I guess, but you’ve got to take it one game at a time. It’s so difficult to project how the start is going to be. Hell, I want to go 16 and 0, that’s what I want to do…but at the same time when you look at the schedule, we’re opening at home, then you look down at your traveling dates. If you have any where you are taking a long trip, coming back on a short week, those are the things that coaches look at. If you look at the schedule overall, we’re going to play Philadelphia’s home opener, the Bears’ home opener…early on that start is going to be difficult. I think it’s going to be tougher than people might think. I think the opener against Arizona will be a very competitive game, then when we go on the road to Philly and Chicago, those are 2 teams that people would all say and agree that they certainly have been on the rise and have improved and we’ve got to be able to match the same intensity that they will have playing at home.
Q. I would like some reassurance for BBI fans that we have improved, but at the same time it is good to hear you say that it might be a difficult start…
A. It’s going to be a challenge. I think in this league and every year is proof of it, week by week the difference is such a fine line and if you went back and charted how many games you played during the course of a 16 game season, how many of them didn’t finish in the final 2 minutes with a make or break field goal or TD, it’s really a small amount. So what it comes down to at the very end, the little things are going to be a big difference for us, for anybody. The kicking game, the special teams, turnovers, we’ve got to be a lot better offensively in the turnover ratio. We’ve really got to do a better job with that and protect the football. The turnover ratio for those teams that are in the plus category arrive in the playoffs every year. So there is an emphasis we’re going to place during our training camp, mini-camps, protecting the football and improve our take aways, that’s one area we really want to focus on. As the teams come, we’ll take them one at a time; it’s a long season and as you look at everyone’s schedule, as coach, from an unbiased opinion, look at as tough or challenging is when you have those 3 away games, 1 on Sunday night, the other back on the road, the logistical standpoint, everything seems pretty clear in regards to where we are traveling and it seems pretty fair. But it’s going to be a grind early on, and we’re going to have to be ready to play right from the get go.
Q. Coach, with the Damocles Sword hanging over the entire staff to “win now”, how do you think the pressure will be if you start, say 1-and-2?
A. I think, anymore, in this league, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to begin with a win every year. Take any team you want to, there’s only a handful of teams that don’t have that pressure or the feeling that “our backs are against the wall” every season in this league. So that’s not going to change our approach at all as to how we coach. We’ve had tremendous support from the organization, from our fans, and we’ll continue to coach the same way we have, work hard at preparing our guys the best that we can. But honestly, the coaches in this have been around long enough to know that preparation is the most important thing. St. Louis last year they were getting ready to fire Dick Vermeil, they were getting ready to fire Jeff Fisher, both those guys went to the Super Bowl. That’s the business we are in and that’s what we’ve chosen to do. So there’s pressure on everyone. I don’t care if you are ahead in your Conference or you are coming up from behind, there’s pressure. There is pressure for every team to do well and the coaches feel that, at the same time that’s part of the business.
As you can see, I tool a lot of the Coach’s generous offer of time. I felt badly about asking any more so we agreed to follow up during training camp. If you aren’t impressed by his candor and straight-forward approach to football and to the questions, you are not reading him right. There is a new maturity around the giants this year. Everyone in the organization from General Manager Ernie Accorsi on down is accessible, and no one is pulling any punches. These guys want to win – they feel like we do and they know just how much we are hurting – because they are hurting the same way. I’m not going to editorialize here, and I didn’t edit Coach Payton’s answers. I wanted to try and convey his sense of excitement, his developing thought processes, I wanted to bring it to you IN HIS OWN WORDS.