February 8, 2010 in Sports

Risks rewarded

Payton’s bold calls help Saints pull upset
Rich Hofmann Philadelphia Daily News
 
Associated Press photo

An onside kick to start the second half helped Sean Payton’s Saints earn the Lombardi Trophy.
(Full-size photo)

MIAMI – Sean Payton coaches a football team that for decades personified the stubbornness of futility. He coaches in a city that in recent years has come to represent the struggle over adversity. That is what the leader of the New Orleans Saints carries with him, from training camp to Super Bowl XLIV. It is a burden he seems to handle easily.

Payton plays to win. It is an easy thing to say; the words flow naturally enough. It is a harder thing to do, though – harder and harder as the pages of the NFL calendar turn, and the games get bigger, and the regular season melts into the playoffs, and the playoffs finish in the Super Bowl.

Nobody calls an onside kick to start off the second half of the Super Bowl, trailing by four. Nobody. That it is a better-percentage play than you think – really about a coin flip when you do it by surprise – does not matter. To call an onside kick in that situation is to risk disaster – and, worse, in today’s world, it is to risk ridicule. There is a reason people go by the book – because, if it all blows up on you, you can shrug and say, “I went by the book.”

Sean Payton? He called the onside kick – and it worked. And as he said afterward, “At halftime, I just told those guys, ‘You’ve got to make me look right here.’ ”

There were a dozen things that happened afterward, all worthy of words and paragraphs and posterity. The Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, and an entire team really does deserve the credit. Quarterback Drew Brees was fabulous from the second quarter on. Cornerback Tracy Porter returned an interception for a touchdown with 3:12 left that sealed it. There were a bunch of crucial plays in between – and kicker Garrett Hartley was money on three field goals of longer than 40 yards.

But it was the coach who ignited them. It was the onside kick that reinvigorated them, leading to a touchdown and then more. It was that moment that will forever define Payton now. Even if the Saints had ended up losing, it would have marked him with distinction.

“Certainly, you have a plan,” Payton said. “You’re careful. And yet, you want to show your players you’re confident. All week long, we really felt, as underdogs, that we had the better team. We normally don’t look at who’s favored and who’s not, but as a coach we felt, being in that position where maybe a lot of people were picking against us, we like the spot we were in.”

And trailing by 10-6 at intermission, he took the bold step. It is a play the Saints had practiced all week, based upon their study of the Colts’ kickoff alignment. To say that Payton was confident in the outcome is to understate the reality.

“We felt there was a 60, 70 percent chance (of recovery) based on their look,” he said. “We felt, not good – we felt real good, to the point where we actually talked about it with the officials. We said, ‘If we do it, this is going to be what it looks like.’ But I said, ‘It’s not if, we’re gonna.’

“The execution was good – it was great. It made me look good.”

Of course, there are two sides to moments like that. There is a winner, and there is a loser. With that, the goat is Hank Baskett, Kendra’s husband. The onside kick went to him, and the wide receiver had it and then he didn’t have it. What followed was the mother of all pileups. You might never see another scrum like it, right in front of the Saints’ bench, about 10 players actually involved and dozens of Saints players and coaches jumping up all around and several officials just diving into the mess and trying to ascertain possession amid the maelstrom.

“I was in on the scrum,” Payton said.

It took a long time. It was combat worthy of the game, and the moment. And in the end, when the Saints’ Chris Reis was the one ruled to have recovered it, the enormous pro-Saints crowd at Silly Name of the Week Stadium – OK, Sun Life Stadium – filled the Super Bowl with a roar. Because Payton had filled his team with gumption.

Earlier, near the end of the first half, Payton had gone for it again. It was not nearly as unconventional as the onside kick, but it was another move that went against the book. On fourth-and-1, trailing by seven Payton decided to go for it rather than take the easy field goal. He didn’t get it, either, when running back Pierre Thomas was stopped by Colts linebacker Gary Brackett. It turned out OK, though. When the Saints’ defense held, they still were able to drive close enough for a field goal.

“That’s the type of team we are,” Brees said. “We play with a very aggressive mentality. We play with a lot of confidence. We came to this game knowing we had to play loose and take a chance in order to win, and we did.”

They got to halftime at 10-6, and then Payton had a half-hour of setting up the stage, and music by The Who, and taking apart the stage, to try to figure out what to do.

Sean Payton? Who are you?

Someone who plays to win.

Try to think of a better legacy.

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