The news today that Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis won the AP Coach of the Year award -- well, that's not something you can really argue with too much. Lewis did a near-miraculous job guiding a team with a skinflint owner, underqualified front office, and undermanned scouting staff to the AFC North title and a 6-0 division record despite the deaths of receiver Chris Henry and longtime team family member Vikki Zimmer, wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Cincinnati's offense flourished with a tougher offense line despite the fact that first-round tackle Andre Smith(notes) was practically invisible due to injury and conditioning concerns. The defense was outstanding throughout the year. And of course, there's always the full-time hassle that is managing one Chad Ochocinco(notes). Lewis did a wonderful job, and I'm hard-pressed to say that he doesn't deserve the award.
Problem is, there's one guy who deserves it just a bit more. When New Orleans head coach Sean Payton reviewed the last two years of Saints football after the end of the 2008 season, he saw unsatisfactory results following the amazing campaign of 2006. Most alarming was the 2008 season itself, when the Saints ranked first in offensive yards and points and still went 8-8 because of a defense giving up too much ground and too many touchdowns. Basically, Payton's team was put in a position every week in which it would have to keep a frenetic scoring pace to win, and that's impossible to do every game through a full season.
Payton's off-season solution was decisive, and somewhat financially drastic. He encouraged team ownership to hire veteran defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and volunteered $250,000 of his own salary to make it happen. The move paid off handsomely -- instead of vanilla formations, Williams brought all kinds of blitzes against offenses passing all the time to keep pace with New Orleans' furious offense. The Saints improved from 22nd to 3rd in takeaway-giveaway ratio, and from 10th to first in point differential. Free agent defensive backs Jabari Greer(notes) and Darren Sharper(notes) gave the Saints a secondary they've never had before under Payton.
And the offense? Well, that's Payton's pride and joy. Bill Parcells' offensive mastermind and passing game coordinator in Dallas from 2003-2005 (it was he, not Jason Garrett, who really got Tony Romo(notes) going), Payton puts more formations and route combinations on the field than anyone else in the game. He's the best of any coach at making sure that his quarterback always has an open man, and that defenses are always playing on their heels. Here's but one example:
The results have been dramatic. The Saints started the season 13-0 before a slight dip in performance, losing their final three games. Poorly-coached teams, with two weeks to think about the victory drought, would fall apart. Not Payton's Saints -- they applied the whoopin' stick to every part of the Arizona Cardinals in Saturday's 45-14 thrashing. They'll face the winner of the Sunday go-round between the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings, and they're looking as good as they have all season. Who's responsible? More than anybody, the real Coach of the Year -- one Sean Payton.