Three Lessons In “Winning” From A Fake Punt: The New Orleans Saints Story
Three lessons in “winning” from a fake punt: The New Orleans Saints story
When your team finds the moment slipping away when all of the energy is flowing against you and it feels like the day just isn’t going to be yours, how do you change momentum?
Do you seek the wisdom of a mentor? Follow conventional wisdom? Circle the wagons and declare that you’ll live to fight again another day?
Not if you’re Sean Payton.
If you’re the New Orleans Saints head coach, you listen to your punter.
While plenty of people are writing about the Saints’ come-from-behind victory on Sunday or discussing one of their offensive possessions that ate up almost the entire third quarter, I want to point you to the moment in the second quarter that, without question, reversed the momentum of the game.
The moment that Sean Payton gambled on his punter’s instinct.
If you missed that moment, here’s the scene: the Saints’ drive stalled on their own 30-yard line, and the team was facing 4th-and-1. Down 14-0, Payton sent out his punt team to kick the ball away and hopefully pin the Eagles deep in their own territory.
Mercedes-Benz Dome was eerily quiet. The energy was gone. The Eagles, seemingly on another magical run that mirrored last year’s Super Bowl setup, looked poised to take control of the game.
But what no one knew was that the Saints punter, Thomas Morstead, came to Payton on the sideline.
“I think we need to run the fake.”
What a moment for the head coach! If the Saints failed, the red-hot Eagles offense would have a short field to attack and maybe put the game out of reach early. If the Saints succeeded, they would steal an extra possession and reignite the crowd, swinging momentum back their way.
With “Big Mo”—and possibly the game—on the line, Payton told his punt team to run the fake.
The fake in question was one the team had been practicing for weeks. The team’s utility player, Taysom Hill, would line up as an upback, receive a direct snap, and follow the lead blocks of FOUR Saints linebackers.
The team had practiced it in every special teams drill, and every time, the play worked. Hill was the trigger man, however—if he didn’t like the defensive alignment when the Saints took the field, he could call off the play and the Saints would just punt.
So when Hill lined up and saw the defense, he knew the play would work.
They executed it to perfection. Needing one yard, Hill bullied his way for four. Three plays later, the Saints executed another deceptive play and little used receiver Keith Kirkwood caught a touchdown pass to cut the lead to seven. The Eagles would never recover.
Watching the game, I loved the call. What a gamble on the part of Sean Payton!
But not really.
You see, Payton’s Saints practice plays like that one all the time. The coach is well known for his creativity, not only in calling plays but in designing them as well. There are few coaches in the NFL that understand the talents and abilities of their players like Payton; even fewer who are willing to maximize those talents to full advantage.
And there’s perhaps no coach as willing to put the game into those players’ hands with so much on the line.
Leaders can learn a lot from what Payton did on Sunday, including three distinct lessons to learn from that one fake punt:
1. Preparation creates opportunities.
By practicing the fake punt over and over again, Payton ensured that his team was not only prepared to execute it well but prepared to execute it in the biggest moment of their season. Too often, teams don’t prepare for big moments and when those moments come, those teams fail to take advantage of them. As my old friend John Wooden said, “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.”
2. Listen to your people.
Leaders need to lean on their team members. When the people who are putting in the work are confident in their ability to execute, a wise leader pays attention and leans into that confidence.
Payton listened to the players on his team because he trusted their judgment. “It was a gutsy call, for sure,” Hill said. “That’s coach Payton. That’s become the norm with him—I think he just has such a good feel for what we need as a team and has a lot of trust in us and the preparation.”
3. Play with nothing to lose.
One of the things I love about Sean Payton is that he frequently plays as if he has nothing to lose. I remember the Super Bowl in 2009 (link to Don’s blog), when Payton came back from halftime and called an onside kick against the Indianapolis Colts that they absolutely did not expect. The Saints pounced on the ball, drove for a score, and brought a championship to N’Awlins. Payton’s willingness to take risks at the right time is something every leader of every team should hope to duplicate.
This coming weekend, the New Orleans Saints will take the turf at the Mercedes-Benz Dome and fight for their chance to return the Super Bowl once again. Sean Payton will have his team well-prepared to go toe-to-toe with the Los Angeles Rams, and there’s little doubt that, when the final whistle blows, the Saints will have left everything on the field.
I don’t know what the final score will be, or how the game might go, but I do know this: I know which coach I’ll trust with the game on the line and a possible NFL title bid at stake.
I’ll take the one who’s prepared so well he can trust his punter to make the call that saves the season.