New Orleans Saints  

 

Saints' Payton ready to play the role of 'Hunted One'

I love the Godfather movies -- all two of them. I know, I'm told a third exists, but c'mon, George Hamilton in the Godfather? Please!

I really believe that in the two movies there is always a point of reference to anything that happens in the world of football -- or life, for that matter.

In The Godfather, there was a character named Virgil Sollozzo who wanted to do business with the Corleone crime family. Sollozzo was the new kid in town, cocky, well-funded, good with the knife and ready to challenge anyone and everyone. When he made his move on the Corleone family and failed, he went from being the cocky new kid to the Hunted One. Once he became the Hunted One, his whole attitude changed; his thought process became disjointed, and he started to make careless mistakes.

This season, Saints coach Sean Payton will go from the cocky new kid who won a Super Bowl to the Hunted One. How he and his team handle the new role will be interesting to monitor.

Bill Haber / Associated Press
Saints coach Sean Payton appears to have a united team with its sights set on another NFL title.
How last 10 NFL champions fared in following season
Super Bowl Champ Next season
XLIII Pittsburgh 9-7, missed playoffs
XLII N.Y. Giants 12-4, lost in divisional round
XLI Indianapolis 13-3, lost in divisional round
XL Pittsburgh 8-8, missed playoffs
XXXIX New England 10-6, lost in divisional round
XXXVIII New England 14-2, won Super Bowl
XXXVII Tampa Bay 7-9, missed playoffs
XXXVI New England 9-7, missed playoffs
XXXV Baltimore 10-6, lost in divisional round
XXXIV St. Louis 10-6, lost in wild-card round

Being the Hunted One means you will be the opponent's measuring stick in every game. Being the Hunted One means every team has spent countless hours in the offseason thoroughly studying both your offensive and defensive schemes in rare detail (this is hardest to overcome because if a team changes schemes, the players will wonder why, and if a team does not make changes, they run the risk of being predictable). Being the Hunted One means that in order to repeat your team must avoid injuries, which is something that can't be controlled. Being the Hunted One means you must bring your best game every week and there can't be any distractions.

Pat Riley, the former Lakers and Knicks coach and current Heat president, wrote a book about teams dealing with their own success -- in essence being the Hunted One. Riley breaks down several known indicators of a team that has caught the "Disease of Me" and will struggle to repeat:

» Inexperience in dealing with sudden success
» Chronic feelings of being underappreciated
» Paranoia over being cheated out of one's rightful share
» Resentment against the competence of partners
» Personal effort mustered solely to outshine a teammate
» A leadership vacuum resulting from the formation of cliques and rivalries
» Feelings of frustration even when the team performs successfully

Riley cautions, "Without that sacrifice, you'll never know your team's potential, or your own."

The one thing I do know is that Payton has been preparing. He has made numerous phone calls to championship coaches all over the world, looking for a few hints on how to deal with a complacent team.

Some coaches might think you can't change your approach, some say you have to change everything, and some -- like the Patriots' Bill Belichick, the last coach to repeat as champion -- will not even discuss the prior year. Belichick suddenly develops amnesia after winning a title. And we know Payton has imitated Belichick in the past -- down to his voice. And the way Payton has behaved this offseason, it appears he is mimicking Belichick's memory-loss approach.

In New Orleans this offseason, we have not seen any players negatively dealing with their sudden success. We have not heard any vocal contract demands or players being unhappy with their deals heading into training camp. Those complaints have come from teams like the New York Jets and San Diego Chargers.

Jets coach Rex Ryan is faced with a daunting task of handling an unhappy locker room of players who feel they are being cheated out of one's rightful share (each item in Riley's list above applies to the Jets). Each time I hear a Jets player complain about his contract, or think of all the different personalities in the their locker room, I am reminded of a character named Prop Joe from "The Wire," a hit show on HBO. "It ain't going to be easy civilizing (these people)," Prop Joe once said about trying to handle all the different gang members' personalities on the streets of Baltimore. It won't be easy for Ryan to keep things calm or civilized in his locker room, either.

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These are the pitfalls that most teams trying to repeat fail to overcome. But what have the repeat teams been able to do?

Since the salary cap has balanced the field in the NFL, there have only been two teams able to repeat as champions: The 1997-98 Broncos and 2003-04 Patriots. The common denominator of both teams: Great quarterbacks who controlled the locker room, and great head coaches who controlled the team and were not afraid to ruffle some feathers.

The Saints have the right formula to repeat, and they also have a team which has not suffered from its own success. But it also takes some good fortune to repeat, from not suffering key injuries to the ball bouncing the right way on a few fumbles. With that said, I like the Saints' chances again this year. I like the coach that Payton has become -- shedding his "players coach" label to realizing that being tougher makes his team stronger. He has become a dangerous play-caller in part due to his unpredictability and willingness to take chances.

He knows he is the Hunted One, and unlike Sollozo, he seems to be handling the new role very well.

NEWS AND THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE LEAGUE

» I feel badly for Ravens linebacker Sergio Kindle, who might have cost himself the season with his recent fall. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has already ruled out Kindle for the preseason, and it's doubtful he can make a contribution to the team this year. The Ravens will honor his draft slot and pay him the going rate, but they will not have to pay him anything this year if they place him on the non-football injury list. Whenever a player suffers an injury not related to the game, the club has a right to withhold pay.

» I could care less if Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant carries Roy Williams' pads after practice, but what I do care about is watching Bryant play. And from the few plays I have seen from camp, he has been sensational and should be an impact player this year for the 'Boys. They might have to be in more spread sets to utilize all their talent, thus making running back Felix Jones even more explosive.

» I expect Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and new offensive coordinator Mike Martz to blend well together and have a great year. But the key improvement in Chicago will be the offensive line, and I hear line coach Mike Tice has done a great job so far bringing this group together.

» I always have liked former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck as a player, but with his recent knee injury and age (33), I wonder if he will help the Giants this season. The Giants need speed on defense, athletic players who can run sideline to sideline. Bulluck might be able to get everyone lined up, but I'm not sure he can still run well enough to help this defense. The Giants, who allowed more than four passing plays of at least 2O yards per game last year, need more speed -- especially at linebacker.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter at @michaelombardi.

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