There’s an exercise making its way around social media these days called the 10-year challenge. People are expected to post a photograph of themselves from 2009 alongside a recent one to illustrate how much they have changed in a decade. In most cases, the difference is pretty noticeable.
If the New Orleans Saints were to participate in that challenge, the changes would be just as dramatic. As they head to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in almost a decade, they would find very few similarities between the team photo from their squad that won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season and the one taking the field here in early 2019. Key players from that title run such as Pierre Thomas, Reggie Bush and Marques Colston have been replaced by Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and Michael Thomas.
There is one constant that has lasted for the Saints, though, bridging the gap between the last time they were as close to a Super Bowl and this one. It’s the combination of head coach and quarterback — Sean Payton and Drew Brees — who have been in New Orleans since they arrived together for the 2006 season, when the city and the franchise were at their lowest points in recent memory.
They’ve become one of the most successful combos in NFL history, and for a city that adores blending two elements into one — like red beans and rice or shrimp and grits — they have established themselves as a New Orleans staple.
“I appreciate it a lot,” Brees said of the synergy he and Payton have built up during their time together. “Listen, we've had a lot of time together. There's things that we can reference that might be unique to our relationship different than others. We've had 13 years together. Something can come up through the course of the game and we can midstream adjust very fast. We can reference something that happened this season or reference something that happened 10 years ago based upon a look that we're seeing or just a situation. I think that's unique.”
Well, not exactly. Payton and Brees moved into second place on the all-time lists of starts and wins for a head coach and quarterback, surpassing Don Shula and Dan Marino at varying points of 2018, but the playoffs still include the NFL’s most dynamic duo in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. To surpass them in starts would take at least another 5 1/2 seasons, and that’s assuming an immediate divorce for New England’s power couple.
The four of them might even meet two weeks from now, at which point Payton and Brees would be in a position they rarely find themselves: less experienced than their counterparts.
But in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against the Rams, Payton and Brees will have the longest relationship on the field by far. Consider that when they won Super Bowl XLIV together, current Rams coach Sean McVay was fresh out of college and coaching wide receivers for the Florida Tuskers of the UFL, current Rams quarterback Jared Goff was a freshman in high school and the current Los Angeles Rams themselves were based in St. Louis.
Payton said that when he is asked about the longevity of his tenure with Brees, who turned 40 this past week, it “feels like maybe seven or eight years, not necessarily 13” spent together.
“There's always a change relative to what we're doing offensively that involves who we're doing it with,” Payton said. “So personnel has changed from the '06 team to the '09 team. Each year there's new pieces, there are guys that have left, and certainly you evolve offensively. [But] his preparation, how we game-plan, all of those things would be pretty constant.”
Staying together so long is one thing. Winning is another. They usually go together. Yet if the Saints beat the Rams, Payton and Brees will return to the Super Bowl together after a longer time away than any other head coach-quarterback combination in history with multiple appearances. It took them nine seasons to return to this point.
“I had the chance to be a part of some great teams here and a lot of playoff games,” Brees said. This is only the third time he’ll play in the NFC Championship Game, though.
“It's a hard game to get to, that's for sure, so we won't take that for granted,” Brees said.
It’ll be a challenge.
Sean Payton and Drew Brees have combined for the second-most games and second-most wins as a head coach and quarterback in NFL history, passing Don Shula and Dan Marino at points during this past season. Here is a look at the league’s all-time best combos:
Most Regular Season Wins Together
Patriots’ Bill Belichick & Tom Brady 207
Saints’ Sean Payton & Drew Brees 118
Dolphins’ Don Shula & Dan Marino 116
Steelers’ Mike Tomlin & Ben Roethlisberger- 114
Most Regular-season Starts Together
Belichick & Brady 267
Payton & Brees 190
Shula & Marino 184
Giants’ Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning 183