New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton spoke on a conference call with Bay Area writers Tuesday afternoon.
Here’s what he said.
Q: How much of a contrast is there between these two teams? So much is made of your high-powered offense and this defense you’ll be facing.
PAYTON: “I think that San Francisco as has done a great job – not only defensively but as a team, of taking the football away and then protecting it on offense. I think that turnover statistic will be important in this game.”
Q: Have you practiced on grass this week?
PAYTON: “We were inside today with more of a lighter practice. We’ll be outside tomorrow. Thursday we’ll be outside, and then Friday we’ll have a practice at Candlestick – outside.”
Q: Why do you think there is a discrepancy in your offense’s production indoors versus outdoors?
PAYTON: “I think often times that can come with a dome team.”
Q: How have the 49ers evolved from the team you played in the preseason?
PAYTON: “In a lot of areas. We’ve seen now, over the period of a whole season, the progress of a quarterback and an offense. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. You see the big plays coming off of play action pass. Alex’s progress has been outstanding, and the confidence of his players around him you can see on film.
“Defensively, they’re real impressive. When you look at their ability to force a team to become one-dimensional – and that’s their ability, to stop the run, their first in the league in doing that – and then when you get into that third down and medium or long situation, here come the takeaways. They’ve led the league in takeaways this season, and they’ve led the league in giving it up the fewest amount. Put that with a real good kicking game and you have a team with the success like San Francisco’s had.”
Q: Do you think Frank Gore is a major threat as a running back after all these years and carries?
PAYTON: “Yeah, absolutely. We coached Frank in the ’06 Pro Bowl and he’s got that balance, that vision, he’s physical, he’s got real good elusiveness, and just having had a chance to coach him for a week you come away with impressions on players, and I know everyone on our staff came away from the ’06 Pro Bowl feeling like he was one of the top backs in our league, and better than that even, a great guy. Just to be around someone who enjoyed football, enjoyed competing.”
Q: Does playoff experience matter? There are so many guys in this 49ers locker room who haven’t been there before and you have a room full of guys who a lot of them have been to the playoffs.
PAYTON: “I don’t know that it does. Our game, it’s three hours long, so it’s going to be 12 to 14 series each, it’s going to be some plays in the kicking game. Last week the same question was asked before we played Detroit, and we’ve got a number of guys we’re playing without it. I don’t think it hurts, but it certainly doesn’t entitle you or guarantee anything.”
Q: How much did last year’s playoff loss in Seattle serve as motivation for this year’s squad?
PAYTON: “Well, when you finish the season with a tough loss I think that’s something you really remember forever. I think heading into last week’s game we talked about where we were a year ago at that date – after that wild card round, and how hard that was to have high expectations and to come away with just a loss in that first playoff game. So I think there’s certain things you learn from – you understand the finality of this time of the year, and you never take things for granted. And so all of us – players, coaches – will carry that tough loss with us, just as we will the wins we’ve had. You hope you’re getting something not only from the wins, but you hope you’re learning something from the losses.”
Q: Can you clarify what happened between you and Jim Harbaugh in that first preseason game – whether there was or wasn’t a phone call or a gentleman’s agreement, and if there’s any bad blood?
PAYTON: “There’s no bad blood. I had a chance to listen to Jim talk yesterday and the report was absolutely crazy. The thought that I would be waiting for a certain phone call – I just answered that same question with our media. We end up – if you watch our preseason games every offseason – every year you see us in one or two of those games, trying to blitz a lot, to get our packages in. But the idea he was offended he didn’t call is nuts, and the idea that we’re sitting here talking about it because some reporter reported it like it was fact is completely crazy.”
Q: So you didn’t ask Gregg Williams to bring on the blitz?
PAYTON: “No. I wish I was wearing a mic. I don’t think I’ve ever turned to him and said, ‘Let’s bring on the blitz now.’ I mean, just think about the idea of that. This mysterious phone call that we were expecting is crazy. If there ever was a time in the preseason, it’s usually the fourth game that you might make a decision in regards to what you may or may not do, but I know Jim – certainly know and worked with his brother. It was a bogus report and it’s crazy we’re talking about it.”
Q: What do you make of what Harbaugh has been able to do out here in just a few months, when most college coaches have not been able to do that?
PAYTON: “In fairness to pro coaches, college coaches – I think real good coaches that come in and have success in our league can come from both levels. To Jim’s credit, he’s found that niche and that enthusiasm with his players and the turnaround has been amazing. He and his staff have done a great job – the development of a number of players starting with Alex Smith, the way the defense is playing, it’s been very impressive. And the thing about it, every week we go back and watch NFL Network and we watch clips and highlights of all the teams that we play and see – they look like they’re having a ton of fun as well. I think that’s important in our game, to not lose track of the emotion of what we do, an enjoyment of what we do, and certainly when you win it’s a lot more fun, but it’s been real impressive. The turnaround in such a short period of time has been amazing.”
Q: Jonathan Goodwin came over from your team to the Niners and has been a key offensive lineman. Can you talk about him?
PAYTON: “We had a number of good years with Jonathan. He was a huge contributor for us. He’s a great individual. He’s extremely smart. And one of the things I would say about him is he was as consistent and steady a performer and a practice player and a game day player. You just knew what you were getting. He’d fight through injury, and he gave you that performance on a daily basis. We were fortunate enough to sign him from the Jets, and I think San Francisco is enjoying the same things that we had in him during our Super Bowl season, leading up to that season and then even the year after. He’s one of the special guys in our league.”
Q: How has Aubrayo Franklin transitioned to your team from this 3-4 scheme here?
PAYTON: “He’s done well. Our packages are a little bit different form the true 3-4 defense. He’s a great teammate, and what difficult sometimes – both with him and Shaun Rogers – there are certain weeks where their involvement may be a little less or a little more based on the opponent we’re playing, and how much we’re seeing the spread sets as opposed to the conventional sets. I think that he’s been very consistent, he’s remained healthy and this will be a game where we see a lot of Aubrayo and Shaun, based on a lot of the sets that we’ve seen from San Francisco.”
Q: Did you know exactly what you were getting with Darren Sproles? Has he exceeded some of your expectations?
PAYTON: “I think there was a certain element we felt comfortable with, but there are some areas that he’s really impressed us with. No. 1 I think he’s an exceptional learner. In a short offseason, really no offseason, he’s come in a picked things up very quickly. No. 2 he’s been a better runner for us between the tackles than maybe we would have anticipated. But his decisions during the game as a receiver or as a back have been outstanding, he’s a great teammate and he’s really given us a spark not only in the nickel but certainly in base situations.”
Q: How much do you take from last season’s game against the Niners?
PAYTON: “I think they’ve changed enough. It was a team a year ago that had a very, very good defensive front, they were very hard to run the ball against and so there’s some carryover. But I think it’s a much more complete team right now.”