Sean Payton and Drew Brees for years have referred to the Patriots as a model NFL franchise, and one worth emulating.
During the buildup to New Orleans' visit to New England on Sunday, both clubs have showered one another with expressions of mutual respect. The praise appears genuine — there are similarities between the teams that don't seem all that coincidental — and Payton says that Bill Belichick "has been someone certainly that I look up to."
It starts with two of the game's most successful coaches, the philosophies they share, and the close relationship each has forged with elite quarterbacks who are the faces of their franchises and unquestioned leaders in the locker room.
Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich has seen it firsthand, having played for both coaches.
"You can kind of see the similarities and how they want their teams to be mentally tough teams that are smart," Ninkovich said. "In the NFL, more teams lose games than go out and win them, so playing smart football" is paramount.
Ninkovich was drafted by New Orleans, but injuries made it tough for him to gain traction there. He later emerged as a defensive leader in New England. He saw firsthand the trust Payton placed in Brees, and sees that same thing now with Belichick and Tom Brady.
"Obviously with Bill and Tom, they've been doing it for a long time now, same with Drew and Sean," Ninkovich said. "There's a great amount of respect on both sides, respect and trust to know that they are going to go out there and really do everything they can to help their team win."
Belichick and Payton are part of the Bill Parcells coaching tree.
Payton joined Parcells in Dallas a few years after Belichick's last stint with Parcells (with the New York Jets) had ended, so it wasn't until the 2007 Pro Bowl that Payton and Belichick got to know one another.
"We've shared the opportunity to work for a Hall of Fame head coach," Payton added. "So there are probably some things that are similar."
As Payton recalled, Parcells often spoke of how he benefited as a young coach from friendships with more experienced peers such as Tom Landry and Chuck Noll, and the Saints coach explained that he views Belichick in much the same way.
Payton, who led the Saints to their only Super Bowl appearance, and title, in the 2009 season, also is quick to point out that how much greater Belichick's record of accomplishment is than his own.
"When we started in 2006, we tried to look closely at the franchises that were having a lot of success and study closely what they were doing," Payton said. "New England was one of the main ones that we looked at. Of course we were fortunate to sign Drew and then build on that and get the right players in place, but (the Patriots in the Belichick-Brady era) have been to five Super Bowls and won three. That is pretty amazing."
Belichick and Payton hit it off in Hawaii, and in subsequent training camps have held joint practices together.
"We have a similar general overall outlook to the game as how we try to coach, of what things are important," Belichick said. "When we practiced with the Saints, they are very easy to work with. I think the things that we want to emphasize in practice, they want to emphasize. The ability to do things and work together because of common philosophies, not schematically, but in terms of approach to the game, practicing, preparing, working against each other, those things were very easy with the Saints."
They have only met one time in a regular season game. It was a Monday night in New Orleans, when Brees threw for five TDs in 38-17 Saints victory that Brees looks back on as a landmark moment for his franchise.
"Anytime you can get on the field against a team like that and play like we did in '09, it's a huge confidence boost," Brees said.
Brady was closing in on Brees' NFL record of 54 straight games with a TD pass but the Patriots couldn't get into the end zone just last week in a loss at Cincinnati.
Now, it seems, New England is the team looking for a confidence boost.
"They challenge you in all areas. They've been one of the best teams in the league for a while," Brady said of the Saints. "Hopefully we can go out and beat these guys, but it will be tough."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org