Living on the edge pays off for Saints
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MIAMI – Shortly before the start of the third quarter of Super Bowl XLIV, while the 74,059 fans at Sun Life Stadium were rocking out to the raucous climax of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton put on a crowd-pleasing performance in the visitors' locker room.
"Listen, we're gonna run 'Ambush' to start the second half," Payton told his players, referring to an onside-kick call the team had practiced repeatedly in the two weeks leading up to Sunday's showdown with the Indianapolis Colts. "We're playing this game to win it. We've got all the bullets; we might as well use 'em. So you'd better get on that damn ball and make me look good."
The Saints howled their approval, then headed back onto the field with a bounce in their step. Trailing by four points against the seemingly indomitable Peyton Manning(notes), New Orleans would be fueled by the audacity of hope as it had all season.
The Colts – and a whole lot of football fans and prognosticators – were about to get fooled, again.
After the Saints recovered Thomas Morstead's(notes) perfectly executed onside kick, quarterback Drew Brees(notes) drove the team to a go-ahead touchdown and kept right on delivering perfectly placed passes, staking underdog New Orleans to a seven-point lead with 5:42 remaining.
Another series of gambles – by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who picked the perfect time to call an exotic blitz, and cornerback Tracy Porter(notes), who jumped Manning's pass to Reggie Wayne(notes) and returned it 74 yards for a game-clinching touchdown with 3:12 to go – put the finishing touches on the Saints' first championship.
It was New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17; Chutzpah 1, Conservatism 0.
"We've been a team that kind of lived on the edge all year," Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper(notes) said in the Saints' rowdy locker room after the game. "We've had great, gutsy calls at the right time. To win a world championship, that's what you've got to do."
Added outside linebacker Scott Shanle(notes), who broke up Manning's fourth-down, goal-line pass to Wayne with 44 seconds remaining to make the victory official: "It takes [expletive]. Scared money doesn't make money. Taking risks, that's been our nature all year. It's the reason we're here."
It's the reason Payton, as a rookie coach taking over a team that had struggled after a Hurricane Katrina-induced transplant the previous year, was able to convince his players from the start that they had a chance to do something special, leading them to their first-ever NFC championship game appearance in '07.
It's the reason Payton, while sitting at home on a Friday night following a second consecutive subpar season last January, made the executive decision to offer prospective defensive coordinator Gregg Williams an extra $250,000 – out of his own pocket – as a means of convincing him to take New Orleans' offer instead of a similar one from the Green Bay Packers.
"I'd had a few beers, and I called [general manager Mickey Loomis] and told him, 'Let's not lose a coach over this' and offered to kick in the money,' " Payton recalled following the team's overtime victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game two weeks ago. "The next morning my wife said, 'What did you do?' I had to call Mickey back and make sure: 'It's just for the first year, right?' But in this day and age, it's the cost of doing business." (The Saints reportedly reimbursed Payton for the expenditure midway through the season.)
On Super Sunday, a willingness to take risks was the reason that Payton, unlike Indy counterpart Jim Caldwell, provoked a sense of fearlessness that brought out the best in his players.
"Coach is a players' coach," defensive end Will Smith(notes) said afterward. "We love him. He does things that we would do. And we try to have his back."
Consider the way each coach approached the end of the first half. After falling behind 10-0 in the first quarter, New Orleans had reduced the deficit to seven after the first of three Garrett Hartley(notes) field goals and was a yard away from a game-tying score at the two-minute warning. Halfback Mike Bell(notes) was stuffed for no gain on a run to the right side on third-and-goal, and Payton decided to go for it. The Saints called a similar play for Pierre Thomas(notes), who was blasted short of the goal line by middle linebacker Gary Brackett(notes) and several other Indy defenders.
The fired-up Colts figured to go into halftime feeling mighty good about themselves. But rather than allowing Manning (31-of-45, 333 yards, one touchdown, one interception) to do his thing, the rookie coach, who had yet to lose a meaningful game, called three consecutive runs that netted nine yards, forcing a punt from the Indy end zone.
The Saints got the ball back at their own 48-yard line with 35 seconds remaining, and after three completions and a spike by Brees (32-of-39, 288 yards, two TDs, no interceptions), Hartley booted a 44-yard field goal as time expired.
"That was big," Payton said. "It was important to get the score back before the half."
Getting the ball back to start the second half was even bigger. "Ambush" lived up to its name, as Morstead faked a deep kick to his right and swept his leg back across his body with a squib to the left side. The Colts' Hank Baskett(notes) had a clear shot at the ball, but he misplayed it and it bounced off his helmet as backup safety Chris Reis(notes) squirted in to fall on the ball. Reis momentarily lost it before regaining possession, holding on for dear life until, after about 30 excruciating seconds, an official finally signaled New Orleans ball.
"It seemed like forever," Reis said. "My forearms were burning afterwards. One ref was saying blue ball, one was saying white ball. One told me to let go, but there's no way I was going to. [Colts players] were prying my hands away, trying to get it out. But there's no way I wasn't gonna come out with the ball."
Brees put the Saints ahead a little more than three minutes later on a 16-yard screen to Thomas, but Manning quickly restored order with a 10-play, 76-yard touchdown drive, giving Indy a 17-13 lead. The four-time MVP threw a pair of stunningly sublime balls to tight end Dallas Clark(notes) on the drive and seemed to be positioning himself for a second Super Bowl MVP trophy in four seasons.
Williams, naturally, decided to be proactive at the most pivotal time. Facing a third consecutive future Hall of Fame quarterback in the postseason, having already dispatched with the Cardinals' Kurt Warner(notes) and the Vikings' Brett Favre(notes), Williams had crafted a game plan based on the premise that Manning must be kept off-balance.
In the first quarter, the Saints played almost exclusively out of a 3-4 formation. They switched back to their typical 4-3 in the second quarter, also mixing in nickel formations. They alternated between these approaches in the third quarter, waiting until the final 15 minutes to unleash a series of exotic blitzes.
Brees celebrates following a Saints score.
Trailing 24-17 after Brees' two-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey(notes) and two-point conversion to wideout Lance Moore(notes), Manning took the ball at his own 30 with 5:42 remaining and started methodically marching the Colts downfield, just as hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide expected.
Early in the drive, Saints veteran outside linebacker Scott Fujita(notes) suggested to Williams that he call a "Ram-1" blitz, which would send all three 'backers and leave Sharper in "Cover 1" as the lone safety. "If you feel comfortable with our coverage on the back end," Fujita told him, "Ram could get there."
With Indy facing a third-and-5 from the New Orleans 31, Williams called the blitz, sending Shanle and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma(notes) to Manning's right in an effort to force him to throw left. Sharper stayed in the middle, covering Clark on an inside route while Wayne ran an "in." Porter, having anticipated Wayne's move based on film study, jumped in front of the Pro Bowl wideout, made the pick at the 26 and raced into the end zone with the third-longest interception for touchdown in Super Bowl history.
"We sent all three linebackers, and we got it out of his hand," Williams said. "It was a seven-man pressure, inside-over low pressure. We tried to knock protection back and make him make a quick throw. As soon as they're lining up, I'm looking at [Porter] to see if he sees what I see, and I'm trying to intercept it before he intercepts it!
"There was a step-by-step process. It's one of Peyton's favorites. He's beaten so many people on that same route. Our guys just believed the pressure would be there. Our guys believed [Wayne] couldn't turn it up top. If [Manning] held it half a second longer, it would have been an avalanche in the pocket, and he would have been down."
Instead, defensive end Will Smith, who'd pressured the pass with a strong rush off the outside edge, had the pleasure of knocking a future Hall of Famer to the turf as Porter sped by with the sweetest touchdown run in franchise history. "I saw [Manning's] face right after he threw it," Smith said, "and I knew it was an interception. And then it got even better."
It got even louder at Sun Life Stadium, where Saints supporters dominated, and all over the Crescent City, where Fat Tuesday (eight days from Sunday's game) has suddenly become an afterthought.
As great as Super Sunday night and Magnificent Monday morning would be for the Saints fans who flooded South Beach and Fort Lauderdale Beach to celebrate an unlikely championship, the players knew where the real party was.
"Bourbon Street, definitely," Fujita said. "I know there'll be a lot of shirts coming off, that's for sure."
Hey, what else would you expect? After all, as Payton showed a football-watching world in an entertaining Super Bowl, audacity and the Saints go together like beads and balconies.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• When Williams came to the Saints last year, he had a reputation as a blitz-happy defensive guru with a gift for game-planning excellence. Yet from the start, Williams told his players, "It's not a scheme, it's an attitude," and after some early skepticism they started to understand what he meant. The culmination came Sunday when Porter, as his coach hoped he would, took the chance of a lifetime on Manning's pass to Wayne. If Porter had guessed wrong, it could have been disastrous. "Listen," Shanle said, "if the guy runs an in-and-up, we're screwed." Porter, however, correctly surmised that Manning might not have time to let such a route develop. "That's a kid I was hard on," Williams said of Porter. "I had to try to make him more mentally tough. He's got great physical skills, but he took things too seriously when I first got there. Everyone told me about that. So I had to dog-cuss him and treat him real hard when I was there early so he'd be like a good corner. Sometimes, you just have to say, 'What the F.' Just forget me and forget everyone else. You know what, if you make a bad play, keep going. I'm proud of him. He's come a long way. Not only [Sunday night]. All season." Williams has come a long way since his ill-fated, three-year stint as the Buffalo Bills' head coach from 2001-03. Williams went 17-31 before being fired, but there were mitigating circumstances. He'll likely get another shot after the 2010 season, and I expect him to succeed the second time around.
• Those of us who'd seen The Who perform live before Sunday knew the band was likely to captivate the audience during its halftime gig, and Thursday's unexpected and utterly delicious acoustic set by Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend before and after their news conference ("Behind Blue Eyes," "Pinball Wizard," "Won't Get Fooled Again") reinforced that conviction. I'm still going with U2's epic performance from eight years earlier as the gold standard, but The Who came awfully close to matching it, delivering a pulsating, passionate 12-minute set of abbreviated classics ("Pinball Wizard," "Baba O'Reilly," "See Me Feel Me," "Who Are You," "Won't Get Fooled Again") that I somehow managed to watch from the best seat in the house – club level, 50-yard line, directly opposite the center of the stylish circular stage. The sound was clean and loud; the laser-like lights were a terrific touch; and Pete can still summon windmills, bad shoulder and all. Sure, I could quibble with a few things. First, as I stated after watching Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band last year, I'm not a big fan of the omitted verses and medley approach. Full renditions of "Baba O'Reilly" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" would have gotten the job done, for my money. Secondly, for all those who were writing them off as washed-up rockers, Roger could've blurted out the F-bomb that graces "Who Are You," and Pete could've closed the set by smashing his guitar, like in the old days. In general, though, this was a home run. So who's next? Zeppelin, anyone?
• At a beautiful-people-laced reception on the penthouse floor of the W South Beach Friday night, I learned that, despite my immense faith in my own driving abilities, I did not win the Audi Efficiency Challenge. Instead, I was edged out by Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne(notes), who came in at 32.6 miles per gallon to my 31.7. While I was bummed that I didn't collect the $20,000 first prize, which I planned to donate to a pair of Type I diabetes-related charities, I have to say I took my defeat better than Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora(notes), who finished third. (ESPN.com's Bill Simmons, who was a distant fourth, didn't seem overly devastated by the outcome; then again, he was the only one of us who didn't drive painfully slow on the freeway and obsess over fuel-efficiency strategies.) In general, it was a great experience. The Audi Q7 TDI, a clean-diesel SUV, is a wonderful vehicle. I got to spend two days with one of my best friends, Dr. Ponzio, and it was a lot of fun to talk good-natured smack with Henne, Umenyiora and Simmons. I also got to experience getting headlight-flashed in the daytime for going too slow in the right lane of I-95 by a dude in a Vanagon, right in the middle of NASCAR country in North Carolina, and when the guy pulled ahead of me, I learned that his personalized license plate was "JOSH." At the reception Friday night, which included big stars like Jessica Alba and Hilary Swank, I got to meet Rob Lowe, who went to Santa Monica High School around the same time I attended rival Palisades in the early '80s – and have one of the actor's sons inform me he's a big 32 Questions fan. Smart lad. Best of all, thanks to support from generous friends and readers and help from many dedicated professionals, including the tireless Josselyn Miller, I've already raised thousands of dollars for the Diabetic Youth Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation – and, trust me, I'm just getting started. In the meantime, please consider donating to either of these very worthy organizations and join me in congratulating Henne, who's making his donation to Berks County Community Foundation, on a job well done.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• It's tough for me to beat up on a coach who took over for a highly successful predecessor, won his first 14 games before suffering a pair of zero-impact defeats and then defeated a pair of postseason foes. But Caldwell, as noted earlier, could have been a bit less conservative, especially on the three-play sequence late in the first half that kept Indy from being able to kill the clock. Caldwell also sent Matt Stover(notes) out to try a 51-yard field goal – eight yards more than his longest successful kick of the '09 season – on fourth-and-11 with 10:44 remaining and the Colts up 17-16. Stover's kick was wide left, and Brees parlayed the field position into a nine-play, 59-yard drive that produced the game-winning touchdown. In general, I commend Caldwell for a terrific season, and I think he'll continue to keep the Colts in contention for championships for several years to come. However, for those who thought his (and/or team president Bill Polian's) decision to pull Indy's starters in the third quarter of a December game against the Jets, likely costing the team a shot at an undefeated regular season, indicated a paranoid passivity that was somewhat disturbing, some of his decisions on Super Sunday provided additional ammunition.
• Then again, Sunday's outcome might have been far more embarrassing for Caldwell's distinguished predecessor, Tony Dungy, who spent the days leading up to the game proclaiming his former team's inherent superiority. Among other comments, Dungy told SI.com's Dan Patrick that he'd be "absolutely shocked" if the Colts were to lose to the Saints. Later, asked by New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden about the potential for Manning to lead Indy on a last-minute, game-winning drive, Dungy said, "I don't think the game's going to come down to that. … I don't think it's going to be close." He also insisted that Manning was better than Tom Brady(notes), reprising a conversation with former Patriots safety (and fellow NBC analyst) Rodney Harrison(notes) following New England coach Bill Belichick's controversial fourth-and-2 gamble last November: "Your coach wouldn't punt the ball to Peyton, I would punt the ball to Tom Brady with one minute left. Your coach is the best coach in the world and wouldn't punt it to him. What does that say?" Granted, that quote was probably a product of Dungy's distaste for Belichick, having endured his share of uncomfortably chilly postgame salutations (or lack thereof). As I've said many times, far be it from me to censure someone for being outspoken. Still, after Sunday, Dungy might want to start giving Brady – and the Saints – a little more love.
• I was able to break bread with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in separate meals at South Beach restaurants on consecutive days last week, and it was a pleasure getting to spend time with each leader in a relaxed setting. Even before I was wined and dined, I'd have proclaimed that, from my vantage point, both Goodell and Smith represent dramatic upgrades from their respective predecessors, Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw. After some reasonably frank conversations, I'm convinced that Goodell and Smith are intelligent men with a deep passion for the game who will work vigorously and creatively to avoid a work stoppage in 2011. However, I still believe a lockout is a strong possibility. Goodell may be a relatively powerful commissioner, but this is one instance in which it's painfully clear he's an employee of the NFL's 32 owners, and I believe they're the ones driving the bus on this issue. Judging from their recent behavior, including briskly negotiated TV deals that ensure the cash flow from their TV broadcast partners will flow uninterrupted in the event of a work stoppage, and from my conversations with some of them on numerous occasions, I believe the owners either are hell-bent on a lockout, or they want the players to believe that in an effort to increase their leverage. I'll obviously be reporting on this situation in much more in-depth fashion in the coming months, including an exploration of how the Supreme Court's impending decision in the "American Needle" case will play a major role in determining which side gains the upper hand. Until then, remember this: When NBC, CBS, Fox, ESPN, the NFL Network or any of their corporate affiliates report on the labor situation, they are doing so as business partners with the NFL in TV deals in excess of a billion dollars, and their rhetoric should be processed accordingly.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How many shots Dennis Rodman can consume in rapid-fire fashion – and what possessed me to join him in singing "It's Kamikaze time …" repeatedly at the Moves Magazine party last Wednesday night, bringing a perpetual smile to my face and giving my liver a mid-'90s flashback.
2. The rule stating that a receiver who catches a ball while falling to the ground must maintain control of the ball after making the catch – and the way it was applied Sunday by referee Scott Green when he decided to make a key replay reversal on the Saints' two-point conversion attempt with 5:42 remaining. The Saints, who had just gone up 22-17, were initially ruled to have come up short on the conversion after Brees threw a swing pass to Moore, who caught the ball and bobbled it while reaching over the plane of the goal line before appearing to regain possession. The play was called an incompletion, but Payton challenged, and Green ruled after reviewing the play that Moore had come down in the end zone with the ball in his hands. Yet it didn't seem indisputable to me that Moore maintained control after making the catch, as the rule states he must. This is especially confusing given the way the officials interpreted the rule back in Week 1, when an apparent touchdown by the Oakland Raiders' Louis Murphy(notes) in a close defeat to the Chargers was overturned on review. It would be great if someone could explain the distinction to me. It would be far better if the league would change the rule so that it made more sense in the first place.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
All right, all you experts who decreed that, should Manning win a second Super Bowl, he'd be crowned the greatest quarterback of all time – what do you have to say now? Let me guess: He's the worst quarterback of all time? Or, perhaps, the biggest postseason choker of all time? No, I don't really think those things, nor was I ready to concede a second Super Bowl ring would have ensured that Manning would go down as the best QB of his era. Personally, I don't see why we have to decide these things before a given Super Bowl has played, let alone before an era has actually ended. I know we live in a world of instant gratification, but can't we let anything breathe? Manning is now 9-9 in playoff games, so I'm sure there will be plenty of skeptics waiting to pounce, even though he basically made just one mistake (out of 45 throws) on Sunday. A little perspective, please: Manning is a great player. He's just as great as he was before Sunday's game; it's just that he might not be as great as some of you who viewed a second Super Bowl triumph as inevitable insisted he was. And that's OK – he'll still be great next year, and the year after that, which means he'll have more chances to win that second Super Bowl and reignite the arguments about his place in history. Meanwhile, let's throw some appreciation Brees' way and ponder what will happen if he leads the Saints to a repeat title a year from now: Naturally, we'll start hearing that Brees is the greatest quarterback of all time.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Nice to see his stint on Celebrity Rehab worked out for him …"
– Text Friday morning from "SportsCenter" anchor Josh Elliott, my former SI colleague, after learning of my shot-filled party night with Rodman.
"They usually do. How about our insane 2010 class? 2 5-star players! 1st time ever I think."
– Text Thursday from Counting Crows singer Adam Duritz, agreeing that The Who would likely kill it at the Super Bowl and celebrating Cal football's highly rated signing-day haul.
"I'm coming out now. U wanna meet out @ street? I'm coming down in a white lambo"
Text Tuesday night from former Colts halfback Edgerrin James(notes), riding in style outside the Delano hotel in South Beach.
"We have twin 2 yr olds … what's romance?"
– Text Tuesday from Fujita after inviting me to dine that night with him and his wife, Jaclyn.