NEW ORLEANS – Because he has a boyish face, an outgoing personality and a penchant for partying with Kenny Chesney – or perhaps simply because he is pro football's most creative offensive strategist – Sean Payton has this way of being misinterpreted.
All of the aforementioned qualities possessed by the New Orleans Saints' fourth-year coach obscure the most integral element of his essence: He's a cold, calculated, competitive CEO with a steely swagger, and his goal in life is to leave his opponents overwhelmed and powerless.
And now, for the first time, he has a team capable of doing it.
Payton congratulates Bush after a second-quarter score.
(Matt Stamey/US Presswire)
In a game that cemented Payton's team as the NFL's most potent to date, the Saints (5-0) manhandled the New York Giants 48-27 in front of 70,011 fans in the Superdome on Sunday. With an uncontainable, versatile offense and an aggressive, dynamic defense, New Orleans put forth a performance befitting of its coach's personality while following Payton's predictably brainy game plan to perfection.
Whatever he's cooking up, it seems to be working.
"I'd say it is," Payton said.
He wasn't smiling at the time. Shortly before leaving the Superdome, the last man out of the home locker room had gone on a mini-rant about the perception that the Saints are a finesse team, which in football circles is like being called "a bunch of total wusses."
Bemoaning an article in Saturday's New Orleans Times-Picayune examining the team's reputed links to the F-word, Payton submitted Sunday's successful execution of an offensive attack plan as evidence to the contrary. In layman's terms, the Saints completely neutralized the 5-1 Giants' greatest defensive strength – the pass rush, and specifically star defensive end Osi Umenyiora(notes) – while attacking New York's most obvious weakness, safeties Michael Johnson and C.C. Brown(notes).
The result was that Payton's alter ego, Drew Brees(notes), completed 23 of 30 passes for 369 yards and four touchdowns, at one point hitting on 15 consecutive throws while staking the Saints to a 34-17 halftime lead. It was, the Pro Bowl quarterback would later concede, the most impressive performance since he and Payton came to New Orleans in 2006 and completely changed the team's culture.
"But I think our best is yet to come," Brees added.
He wasn't smiling, either. The Saints are a genial bunch in interviews, but this year they're dead serious.
"Our coaches are making a very concerted effort this year to remind us to take every single game very seriously, as a separate entity, one at a time," outside linebacker Scott Fujita(notes) said Sunday evening as he dined with his family (he and his wife, Jaclyn, have twin 22-month-old daughters) and some visiting friends from California at a crowded restaurant on St. Charles Avenue. "We've been very successful, but I think we'll stay grounded."
Fujita, who went down in the first quarter of Sunday's game with a pulled left calf – he'll have an MRI Monday to determine the extent of the injury – recalled the way the Saints took the football world by surprise in '06, ultimately reaching the NFC championship game. Two wildly inconsistent seasons followed as Brees and the Saints put up big numbers but missed the playoffs with 7-9 and 8-8 records, respectively.
Suddenly, Payton had gone from being the NFL's hottest young coach to one whose job security was rumored to be in question. Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs, whose unit ranked 23rd in total defense (and tied for 26th in points allowed) in '08, was fired after the season, and Payton went out and made what might have been his best acquisition since signing Brees: He hired Gregg Williams to oversee the "D".
In fact, when Williams was offered more by Packers coach Mike McCarthy for a similar job in Green Bay, Payton forked over $250,000 of his own salary as an equalizer. Williams didn't know the extra cash was coming out of Payton's pocket until it was reported; it turned out to be money well spent.
A former Buffalo Bills head coach who had great success as a defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins, Williams isn't the archetypical second banana. He has a healthy sense of self that he doesn't go out of his way to conceal to his players, and he coaches like his khakis are on fire.
In other words, he's the defense's answer to Payton.
"They're very similar," Fujita said, laughing. "I mean, it's kind of scary. We go at it in practice. It's pretty cool."
Added veteran free safety Darren Sharper(notes), the team's other fantastic offseason acquisition: "He's a heck of a coach. A lot of people think it's a scheme. He preaches to us that it's not a scheme, it's a mentality. It's a mentality to be aggressive, fly around and get to the football. And we get to move around out there, by design, which makes it a lot of fun."
Williams wasn't available to talk after Sunday's spoilage of Eli Manning's(notes) homecoming in a lockdown performance that was more impressive than the numbers suggested. That's his policy this season, one seemingly designed to display deference to Payton's authority.
However, in a recent interview with the Times-Picayune's Mike Triplett, Williams seemed to take credit not only for the defense's improved aggressiveness but also for the offense's vastly upgraded rushing attack.
"This kind of football team has been here all the time," he said. "They just had to say, 'Let the dogs out.' And it's been fun to see that approach being taken in our run game. Our offensive line has had to defend themselves out in practice. All of a sudden, our offensive line's pretty nasty. They're finishing."
By the time the Saints had finished with the Giants, New York's 5-0 start seemed like the product of a soft schedule. The Giants had given up a combined 23 points in their previous three games and had the league's top-ranked defense coming in. On New Orleans' first 10 possessions Sunday, seven different Saints found the end zone while another drive ended on a fourth-and-goal stop of halfback Pierre Thomas(notes) inches from the goal line.
Harper chases down the Manning fumble
(Bill Feig/AP Photo)
At that point the Giants trailed just 27-17 with 55 seconds left in the first half, and it looked like we might have a legitimate ballgame. Two plays later Manning went back to pass, took a blindside sack from blitzing cornerback Roman Harper(notes) and fumbled. New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) recovered and returned it 12 yards to the New York 7. Reggie Bush's(notes) touchdown dash to the left pylon made it 34-17, and the Saints kept right on forcing the issue.
"Just imagine if we had scored and then got it back on the turnover," Brees said. "We would've had  going into the half."
That probably wouldn't have been enough to satisfy Payton, who as a Giants assistant in 2002 had his play-calling responsibilities stripped by then-coach Jim Fassel and left to join Bill Parcells' Cowboys staff after the season. Though Payton wouldn't bite on the long-ago slight as a source of motivation, Brees said, "Deep down you can tell" that the coach was out to make a point.
His team made 48 of them, in fact, and gained 493 yards against a defense that had been giving up an average of 210. The Saints have yet to trail this season, and the hype machine will surely be humming as they prepare for next Sunday's road game against the Miami Dolphins and beyond.
"That's all right," Brees said. "We'll know how to handle it. We've been waiting for this for awhile."
Payton will handle it by being even more aggressive and trying to punish everyone in his path. Don't let the boyish smile fool you.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Uh-oh – the New England Patriots are back. Those Patriots – the record-setting, no-mercy, "How do you expect us to stop ourselves from scoring?" Pats of '07. It may have been a one-game aberration stemming from a perfect storm (literally and figuratively) – snow in October and a banged-up, crestfallen opponent in the unfathomably unraveled Titans – or it may have been a harbinger of blowouts to come. Consider that in New England's 59-0 browbeating of Tennessee, Tom Brady(notes) threw five touchdown passes in the second quarter – an NFL record – and six overall; the Patriots (4-2) achieved franchise records in points and total yards (619); and they had the biggest halftime lead (45-0) in NFL history and the most lopsided victory since the Rams beat the Falcons by the same score in 1976. "We just helped New England move up in the BCS rankings," Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck(notes) cracked via text. Here's an even more impressive number: The Pats, coming off a defeat to the Broncos in Denver, avoided losing a second consecutive regular-season game, something that has happened only once since 2003. Think about that: Over the last seven seasons, New England's longest "losing streak" is two, and its second-longest is one. Two words: tremendous coaching.
• For the first time since last February's thrilling Super Bowl defeat to the Steelers, the Arizona Cardinals looked like an elite team on Sunday, crushing the Seahawks in Seattle to move into a tie with the idle San Francisco 49ers atop the NFC West. "Bout time!" said quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) via text after his 32-for-41, 276-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Cardinals (3-2) outgained the Seahawks (2-4) 128-3 in the first quarter and held the ball for all but 43 seconds, and Seattle never had a chance. Larry Fitzgerald(notes) (13 catches, 100 yards) made a great catch for the game's first points and was his old, unstoppable self. Warner, meanwhile, joined Dan Marino as the fastest players (114 career games) to exceed 30,000 career passing yards – another reason that, eventually, Warner will join Marino in the Hall of Fame. It wasn't a completely joyous weekend in the Warner household, however. On Saturday the Warners' new three-pound puppy, Lola, suffered a broken shoulder after a fall at the family's Paradise Valley home. She'll undergo surgery Monday – Kurt's taking her to the vet himself – and will be out indefinitely.
• The Minnesota Vikings blew a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead by giving up touchdowns on three consecutive drives and were about to suffer a stunning home defeat to the Baltimore Ravens when Steven Hauschka(notes), a kicker the Vikes cut after the '08 preseason, hooked a 44-yard field goal as time expired. As fans in the Metrodome rejoiced over the home team's 6-0 start, it was obvious what had caused Hauschka's miss: the presence of legendary passer Brett Favre(notes) on the Minnesota sideline. "Of course it did," said Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell(notes), whose 31-yard field goal with 1:56 remaining gave his team a 33-31 lead and held up as the game-winner. "Are they saying any different?" And yes, that was my idea of sarcasm. That said, I fully recognize that without Favre, Minnesota wouldn't have been in position to hand Baltimore (3-3) its third consecutive defeat. The 40-year-old quarterback had another prolific game and responded to Ray Rice's(notes) go-ahead, 33-yard touchdown run with 3:37 remaining by heaving a gorgeous, 58-yard pass to wideout Sidney Rice(notes), setting up Longwell's game-winner. Even if he flames out the way he did for the Jets last season, the future Hall of Famer has already justified his latest comeback – meaning I will try very, very hard not to question him next summer as he draws out his decision of whether to play in 2010.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Two years ago, I flew to London to watch the Dolphins fall to 0-8 (en route to a 1-15 season) and apologized to the good people of England for having to witness such a jolly bad show. This year? Apologies in advance. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-6) should be similarly atrocious when they face the Patriots at Wembley Stadium next Sunday, a matchup that has the potential to be as brutally lopsided as Austin Powers' teeth. It might be cathartic for those Man U fans who are still mad at the Glazer family for daring to own a cherished British club – and, truth be told, the Bucs' owners deserve to be booed for the way they've let their American football franchise deteriorate. With twice the cap room of any NFL team, Tampa Bay predictably has struggled against more talented foes and didn't give rookie coach Raheem Morris much of a fighting chance. That said, the Bucs have been outscored 47-7 in the third quarter this season, the lone points coming in Sunday's 28-21 defeat to the Panthers on Sammie Stroughter's(notes) 97-yard kickoff return. Two words: bad coaching.
• Three reasons why it sucks to be a New York Jets fan today: 1. After a 3-0 start, your team dropped its third consecutive game, losing 16-13 to the Bills – the Bills! – in overtime on Sunday. 2. The rookie quarterback who coach Rex Ryan calls "Sanchize" and who NBC announcer Dick Enberg defiantly calls "San-CHEZ" might soon be known as "Bench-ize" after his five-interception performance. 3. Nose tackle Kris Jenkins(notes), perhaps New York's most important player, may have suffered a season-ending knee injury. One reason why it still sucks to be a Bills fan today: The victory over the Jets, who ran for 318 yards against Buffalo (2-4), might have saved coach Dick Jauron's job.
• Unlike Jauron, who may manage to hang on for the rest of the season, Washington's Jim Zorn has very little chance to make it past the team's Week 8 bye after the 'Skins fell to 2-4 with a 14-6 home defeat to the previously winless Chiefs on Sunday. But before Zorn is officially let go, he's apparently placing part of his masculinity in a jar on the desk of executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato, who reportedly convinced the coach to surrender his play-calling responsibilities in a postgame meeting. In a news conference immediately after the game in which he sighed more conspicuously than Al Gore in his first 2000 presidential debate with George W. Bush, Zorn remained non-committal on who'll start at quarterback in next Monday night's home game against the Eagles. But I'm thinking he'll almost certainly go with veteran Todd Collins(notes), who played the second half of Sunday's game after Zorn finally benched struggling starter Jason Campbell(notes). Similarly, now that the Titans are 0-6 and their once-promising season is a complete disaster, can coach Jeff Fisher keep trotting out veteran Kerry Collins(notes) at quarterback in good conscience? "I'll take a look at that this week," Fisher said by phone after landing in Nashville on Sunday night. With a bye week before a Nov. 1 home game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, I expect Fisher to make the inevitable move back to 2006 offensive rookie of the year Vince Young(notes), if only to evaluate whether the former No. 3 overall draft pick still has a future with the franchise. Three years ago Young replaced Collins as the starter after Tennessee's 0-5 start and led the Titans to eight victories in 10 games and back into the playoff hunt before a final-week defeat to New England dropped them to 8-8. If he can be half that successful over the next 10 games, Young will have resurrected his career.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How Dr. Dre – the seminal gangsta rapper and producer extraordinaire whose breakout album as a solo artist, "The Chronic," featured an homage to Zig-Zag rolling papers on its cover – became mainstream enough to appear in a Dr. Pepper commercial. (Not that I'm complaining, mind you.)
2. Why Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, with a chance to get his first career victory on Sunday (and his team's first in nearly a year), got more conservative than prospective minority owner Rush Limbaugh. The Rams trailed the Jaguars 20-17 in Jacksonville and had first-and-goal at the 9 with less than 30 seconds remaining. After a Marc Bulger(notes) spike and an incompletion, it was third-and-goal with seven seconds to go. And Spagnuolo called for the field-goal unit. Eccch: Josh Brown(notes) tied the game with a 27-yarder, and St. Louis never got the ball back. The Jags won the toss in overtime, drove 62 yards in 13 plays and walked off victorious after Josh Scobee's(notes) 36-yard field goal – handing the Rams their 16th consecutive defeat. Look, I believe star halfback Steven Jackson when he says the first-year coach has the "GPS for a winning franchise." But I can't help but wonder what the hell Spags was thinking on Sunday. Sure, it's possible Bulger could've gotten sacked or taken an inordinately long time to get off a pass on third-and-goal, and it might have cost the Rams the game. But so what? They're not going anywhere this season anyway, and being bold in that situation might have sent a message that resonated for months to come. Instead, Spagnuolo puckered up when things got tense. How can we expect his players not to do the same the next time they have a chance to win?
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I have the strangest relationship with Philadelphia Eagles fans. Last year, because of Philly's penchant for maddeningly inconsistent play, I got down on the team for much of the season, and many readers wanted to put a Liberty Bell-sized crack in my noggin. This year, the opposite has taken place. I've been totally high on the Eagles, writing off their blowout defeat to the Saints as a product of Donovan McNabb's(notes) absence and the quality of the opposition, and some Philly supporters have gone so far as to accuse me of being, well, totally high. "I never thought I'd say this," one wrote after reading a recent 32 Questions, "but I think you have the Eagles ranked too high." Well, after Sunday, I stand corrected: Philly may well be as potent as it was late last year, when it ultimately came within a few plays of making the Super Bowl, but the Eagles have retained their proclivity for hair-pulling debacles. On Sunday in Oakland, they became the first team in three years to fail to score a touchdown against the Raiders, losing 13-9 to an opponent that had been openly mocked by Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce(notes) after a 44-7 drubbing the previous week.
Give credit to the Raiders (2-4) for rising up and playing a much better game against Philly (3-2), but the Eagles did their part by underperforming. The game plan was weird – coach Andy Reid threw 46 times and ran 14 against the league's 30th-ranked rushing defense coming in – and the execution was worse. My favorite moment came in the final minute of the first half when McNabb called a timeout that Philly didn't have, earning a five-yard delay-of-game penalty. (David Akers(notes) ultimately made a 43-yard field goal.) Philadelphia gave up the game's only touchdown in the first quarter when JaMarcus Russell(notes) threw a 16-yard pass to tight end Zach Miller – and the Eagles' defense allowed him to ramble another 70 to the end zone. (And no, that was not a slow-motion replay you were watching.) "I'm embarrassed by the way we came out here and played," McNabb told reporters after the game. Yeah, man – you and your teammates should be. And so should I for overrating you.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Saints may win it all. They look GOOD."
– Text Sunday evening from former Patriots, Bills and Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe(notes), admiring the work of Payton, his ex-Dallas offensive coordinator.
"terrible. horrible. awful. stupid. dumb. embarrasing. retarded. bad. annoying. miserable. unsatisfactory. intolerable. ghastly. horrific. abominable. revolting. grim. hideous. disgusting. passive. obnoxious. slow. hot. exasperating."
– Collective texts Saturday afternoon from my 13-year-old daughter, exhibiting drama-queen tendencies in evaluating her performance in a 3-2 soccer defeat. (She'll bounce back – and ace her next vocabulary test.)
"I ain't going nowhere. I'm a Buc for life!"
– Text Sunday evening from Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber(notes), responding to my column Friday that suggested Tampa Bay consider trading him before Tuesday's deadline.
"Keep an eye on my boy hawthorne. He is an animal!"
– Text Sunday night from Seahawks middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu(notes), who will miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. (Backup David Hawthorne(notes) takes over, complete with that strong endorsement.)