Sean Payton's play calls were a key factor in the New Orleans Saints getting to Super Bowl XLIV. They may now be a key factor in the team losing it also.
The Saints head coach made two questionable decisions at the end of the first half of his team's game with the Indianapolis Colts Sunday night. With New Orleans on the verge of scoring the game-tying touchdown, Payton failed to call a play for his team's marquee player, Drew Brees(notes). And then he brazenly went for a fourth-down touchdown instead of taking an easy field goal.
After Brees had led New Orleans on a 69-yard drive late in the second quarter, the Saints faced third and goal from the 3-yard line. Payton had the two-minute warning to think about his play call and opted to run a handoff to his third running back, Mike Bell(notes). Nothing against Bell, but he's maybe the Saints' seventh-biggest offensive weapon. Starting running back Pierre Thomas(notes) is a better goal-line back in every respect. Predictably, Bell was stuffed on the run.
But Thomas wasn't even the best option. Drew Brees is the best quarterback in the NFC. Taking the ball out of the hands of your best player on the biggest play of the game's first half is mind-boggling. Brees is the Saints. Why go to Mike Bell?
The Colts called timeout after the third down play, giving Payton more time to think about whether he wanted to kick the field goal or go for the equalizing touchdown. It should have been a simple decision. New Orleans had held Peyton Manning(notes) and the Colts largely in check for the second quarter. Going in to halftime with a 10-6 deficit made a lot more sense than perhaps risking the game on a momentum-shifting play.
But the Saints coach went for it. And on fourth down he called the play he should have called on third: a handoff to the team's best touchdown threat, Pierre Thomas. Like Bell, Thomas was stuffed short. Another call, another play ending with Brees watching the action. Yahoo! fantasy blogger Scott Pianowski perfectly summed up the decision when he tweeted: "Your vanity is showing, Sean Payton."
The call reeked of hubris. It was something straight out of Bill Belichick's playbook. It's the Super Bowl. You're playing Peyton Manning. Take the points, go to the locker room with a small deficit and come out ready to play in the second half.
But maybe Payton is more prescient than we thought because his call ended up becoming a moot point. After the turnover on downs, Indy took over on their own 2-yard line and were forced to punt after three plays. A poor kick gave New Orleans solid field position and the Saints were able to convert a field goal at the end of the half to get within four points of Peyton Manning and Indianapolis.
At halftime, the Indianapolis Colts lead the New Orleans Saints, 10-6.