6 and a ½ weeks ago, Saints head coach Sean Payton had reached a low point during his 11 plus years-long tenure as the head coach of the New Orleans NFL franchise.
The Saints were 0-2, and had just been beaten in successive weeks after playing poorly in their first 2 games in losses to the Minnesota Vikings and the New England Patriots.
Saints fans were understandably upset, as the team appeared certain to be headed for a 4th consecutive losing season after the past 3 years of consecutive 7-9 finishes; which have seen the team miss the NFL Playoffs every year since 2013.
But sometimes in life, things have a funny way of changing unexpectedly and completely without warning.
Now 6 and a ½ weeks later, Payton and the Saints find themselves in the midst of a 6-game winning streak, on top as leaders of the NFC South Division, and the current #2 overall conference Playoff seed in the NFC.
And as a direct result from those accomplishments as the NFL has reached its halfway point of the season, Payton now finds himself — and deservedly so — as a candidate for the 2017 NFL Coach of the Year Award.
But the question that some Saints fans are asking this morning is:
Should Sean Payton be considered THE LEADING Coach of the Year candidate, given that he was almost thought to be close to being on the "hot seat" just 6 and a ½ weeks ago, and maybe even in danger of being fired at the end of the year had the Saints not turned things around?
That's a fair question, but one that can only be answered by looking the other NFL head coaches around the League who are equally leading their respective teams to the same amount (or even more) success as well so far this season, as Payton has.
Here's a very quick look at the other 2 current Coach of the Year head coaching candidates that are likely ahead of Payton at this point, and the jobs that they have done with those teams; followed by our own thoughts on the job that Sean Payton has done so far this year for the Saints.
And we'll begin first with the head coach who is considered THE #1 candidate to be 2017 NFL Coach of the Year:
DOUG PEDERSON, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (8-1)
Pederson has guided the Eagles into their bye week this Sunday with a league-best (8-1) record and 7-game winning streak, making him the undisputed leading #1 candidate for NFL Coach of the Year.
Now in his 2nd season as coach of the Eagles after taking over the job when Philadelphia fired former head coach Chip Kelly, Pederson — who spent 13 years primarily as a back-up QB during his playing career, most notably behind Dan Marino in Miami and Brett Favre in Green Bay — is directly responsible for the rapid development of 2nd year QB Carson Wentz, who leads the NFL with 23 touchdown passes.
Pederson, much like Sean Payton, is considered to be a master at play-calling; and just last week his guidance helped the Eagles BLOW OUT the highly-respected Denver Broncos defense in a stunning 51-23 victory at Mile High Stadium in Denver.
Pederson has helped Wentz even further this season by finding creative ways to get star wide receiver Alshon Jeffery — whom the Eagles signed this past off-season in Free Agency from the Chicago Bears — heavily involved in the offense; and has allowed defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to employ an aggressive and attacking style of defense that remains one of the League's best despite missing several key starters due to injury.
SEAN McVAY, LOS ANGELES RAMS (6-2)
If the Eagles' Doug Pederson is the #1 leading candidate, then 1st year L.A. Rams head coach Sean McVay is easily the #2 candidate, and he actually has a valid argument to be #1 himself. The 31-year-old McVay is also THE YOUNGEST head coach in the NFL, and barely older than most of his own players.
McVay formerly was the offensive coordinator in Washington under their head coach Jay Gruden, and he is considered the man responsible for the development of Redskins QB Kirk Cousins. He was hired by the Rams this past off-season after the team fired former head coach Jeff Fisher. This season in his very 1st year on the job, McVay has now taken over the development of 2nd year QB Jared Goff, and the results have been nothing short of remarkable.
As ESPN's lead NFL writer Dan Graziano notes: McVay and the Rams are getting the most out of a guy (Goff) who some around the league were ready to give up on, after only his rookie season in 2016. Graziano says that by running play-action on first down and incorporating route concepts that offer Goff multiple choices on a large percentage of their plays, it's helped him gain confidence and to grow into the role of a starting QB.
Additionally, Graziano makes the observation that the zone-blocking concepts McVay and offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur brought with them from the Redskins, have their roots in the Mike (and now Kyle) Shanahan playbook, and they're paying off thanks to the outstanding play of RB Todd Gurley.
But perhaps McVay's best move? Hiring long-time veteran NFL assistant coaching legend Wade Phillips. Thanks to Phillips, the Rams have turned a stout defense previously under Fisher; into a DOMINANT one.
Thanks to all of these things coming together at the right time, the (6-2) Rams have the current lead in the NFC West Division over the struggling Seattle Seahawks, and a chance for the L.A.'s first winning season since 2003. They just put a literal ASS-WHIPPING this past Sunday on the New York Giants, and might be THE most "dangerous" team right now in the entire NFL.
OTHER COACH OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES:
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota (6-2); Bill Belicheck, New England (6-2); Andy Reid, Kansas City (6-3); Ron Rivera, Carolina (6-3); Sean McDermott, Buffalo (5-3); Doug Marrone, Jacksonville (5-3)
AND NOW, OUR THOUGHTS ABOUT SEAN PAYTON:
If Doug Pederson of the Eagles and Sean McVay of the Rams are number #1 and number #2 at the moment, then Sean Payton is the clear-cut #3 candidate as of right now.
As noted above: Payton is only just 6 and a ½ weeks removed from a spot on the NFL head coaching "hot seat", after the Saints' 0-2 start to begin this season. That in and of itself, should make him a "leading" candidate for the award, if he's not THE LEADING candidate.
So here's why Payton deserves consideration, nevertheless.
It's fairly obvious to anyone who has observed Payton throughout his time in New Orleans, that he has been COMPLETELY REJUVENATED and regained his passion for coaching the sport of Pro Football.
That's thanks mostly in part because of the 2017 Saints Draft Class, which we noted again yesterday is already the 2nd greatest Draft in the team's entire 51-year history, second only to the legendary Saints Draft Class of 1981 (11 players on the final roster, 8 of them became starters).
The Saints' 2017 Draft Class is a "Grand Slam" home run class, with rookie sensational Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate cornerback Marshon Lattimore, running back Alvin Kamara, offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk and free safety Marcus Williams all playing a part in the Saints' sudden and obviously unexpected resurgence.
So why was Payton NOT passionate before this year?
It's probably fair to say that the events surrounding the "BountyGate" controversy that led to Payton being suspended for a year (the 2012 season) had a lot to do with that.
Payton was forced to remain away from doing what he loves doing best, and perhaps the suspension and the controversy that led to it; is what changed his views (at least for a time) of how to approach the head coaching duties after his return to the League for the 2013 season. That was the last year that the Saints made the Playoffs, but even then you got the impression that something was a bit "off".
That got much worse over the past 3 seasons from 2014 thru 2016, when a combination of some "bad apples" (Junior Galette, Jimmy Graham, Brandon Browner) disrupted the team's locker room; and a ridiculous amount of injuries crippled the team's chances of remaining competitive.
But this year, we've seen the return of the "old" Sean Payton, the coach from 2006 and the 2009 Super Bowl season; and the coach who gets FIRED UP and gets in people's faces, and who's definitely not afraid to take chances when the situation calls for it.
Additionally: Payton has long been regarded as an NFL offensive "guru"; and has always had a standing reputation as one of the game's great play-callers.
Now that he has the options at his fingertips (Kamara returning the "scat back" role to the offense, a defense capable of forcing turnovers) once again to utilize his proven schemes from the past, it's allowed him the FREEDOM to coach the way that he really wants to — and not be FORCED to adapt to a more conservative style of coaching, because of not having the right players in the right positions.
And ultimately the results are that 6 and a ½ weeks later, the Saints are (6-2) and will be seeking their 7th straight win in a row this coming weekend in Buffalo against the always-tough (5-3) Bills.
Make no mistake: there's an entire 2nd half of the season remaining still yet to be played; but as of this moment, there's no disputing the fantastic job that Sean Payton has done with this young football team this year.
He's clearly "pushing all of the right buttons", and the Saints' success is an obvious testament to that fact.
However, the question still remains:
Should Sean Payton be THE LEADING candidate for 2017 NFL Coach of the Year?
That remains open for debate — and he and the Saints have 8 more weeks still left to go, to strengthen their case....