It was his chance to run the show and prove to the world that his offensive schemes could be as creative and successful as any in football. It helped, of course, that he picked up Drew Brees, a risky move considering that the quarterback was coming off major shoulder surgery.
We know how the marriage of coach and quarterback has turned out. Together Payton and Brees have a combined regular-season record of 73-38, a postseason record of 5-3 that includes that Super Bowl win over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, and a long list of franchise and NFL offensive records. Brees was good in San Diego. He became a Hall of Famer in New Orleans.
"I'm so thankful for the opportunity to come and play for Coach Payton," Brees said during a break in his preparation for Saturday night's wild-card playoff game against the Eagles. "He was the one who came after me when not a lot of people were trying to sign me. It was after my shoulder injury and I was only two months into an eight-month rehab. He had a lot of belief and confidence in me, and that allowed me to have a lot of belief and confidence in myself."
The Saints ranked 31st in the league in points scored (14.7 per game) and 20th in total yards the year before Payton and Brees arrived. They were fifth in scoring (25.8 per game) and first in total yards in the duo's first year together. The Saints have been among the league's top five scoring offenses five times in the last eight years and in the top five in total yardage seven times in eight years.
"I think the one thing that Sean does is he just always seems to get the right matchups," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "He's obviously got some talent . . . but Sean does a great job of getting his playmakers in matchups that are favorable to him and he does it week in and week out. There's a consistency to it and I think they missed him a year ago [during Payton's bounty suspension], and now that he's back they seem to have picked up where they left off. I think how well him and Drew work together is something pretty special to watch."
Something pretty special happened in Philadelphia this season, too, and it's fair to wonder if it is the beginning of a long-term future between a coach (Kelly) and quarterback (Nick Foles) that could be every bit as formidable as what has taken place in New Orleans over the last eight seasons.
After finishing 29th in scoring during Andy Reid's disastrous final season as coach, the Eagles averaged 27.4 points to finish fourth in that department this season. The Eagles also jumped from 15th last season to second in total yards.
"I think they do a lot of things extremely well," Payton said when asked about Kelly's offense. "You start with their ability to run the football. They come at you with their rushing game. It's an offense where you have to defend the whole field. They do a great job of misdirection, a great job at shots down the field.
"They stress you on the back end and the front end. I think Nick has done a fantastic job as a young player getting acclimated and comfortable with the system. . . . Clearly they're in the early stages of this and I think that's tough news for the rest of the NFC East. [Foles] is very poised and very comfortable with what he's doing and he knows where his outlets are and where he's beating the blitz, and I think his transformation has been amazing."
Payton's high offensive IQ for getting the right matchups is also Kelly's strength, but the two offenses couldn't be more different. The one big similarity is that they both attempt to exploit matchups, and Eagles running back LeSean McCoy marveled at the way his own coach has been able to do that.
"The designs he has, the plays and using different decoys just to get [the best] matchups - that's all you can ask for is to get the matchups," McCoy said. "And the guys we have on offense are making the best of it."
Payton, Brees, and the Saints have been doing that for nearly a decade. If Kelly, Foles, and the Eagles can duplicate their success, some magical days lie ahead at the Linc.