Sean Payton is one of those head coaches who is so gifted as an offensive play-caller, there are times he has to fight against the desire to show off.
Because Payton is also aggressive by nature, the New Orleans Saints' third-year coach has been known to lose that fight. Most infamously, in a game against the NFC South-rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers last December, Payton, with his team ahead by 3 points and four minutes remaining, called a double-reverse. After Reggie Bush's errant pitch to Devery Henderson ended up on the Superdome turf, the Bucs recovered and launched a winning touchdown drive that essentially settled the division race.
Payton knew he had gotten too cute, and he filed away the experience. In doing so, he became a better head coach. We saw this on Sunday as Payton, in another close battle with the Bucs at the Superdome that New Orleans led by 4, faced a third-and-3 at his own 24 with 3:20 remaining and Tampa Bay out of timeouts.
Call the perfect play, the voice in his head said.
He didn't listen. Glancing down at the note he had scrawled on his play sheet – "Run it and be patient" – Payton called an inside handoff to Bush.
"I was tempted to throw for the first down," he said Sunday night as he made the long drive home across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway. "But then I said, 'No, we're gonna run this thing, and if they stop us, we'll punt it and force them to try to score quickly.' "
It turned out to be the right decision. Bush was stopped after gaining a yard, but even after a shanked punt gave the Bucs the ball at their own 49 with 2:24 remaining, the Saints' defense held. On fourth-and-6 from the New Orleans 24 with 44 seconds remaining, Jeff Garcia threw a pass over the middle that was intercepted by rangy linebacker Scott Fujita, and the Saints, who lost their first four games of '07, were off and running with a 1-0 record.
"I was a little conservative," Payton said ruefully. "But the defense was playing well enough to warrant us being conservative."
In this season's first installment of our top-to-bottom trip across the NFL landscape I, too, am being conservative – I'm keeping the New England Patriots in the top 10 despite the 50 touchdown passes, 4,806 passing yards and unparalleled leadership skills that just got put on injured reserve. We'll see how long it lasts.
Matt Cassel, you're on the 32 Questions Hot Seat:
1. Green Bay Packers: Hey, all you bandwagon-jumpers, can you kindly huddle up and make some room for the next group?
2. New York Giants: Does any team have more depth, especially in the defensive front seven?
4. Tennessee Titans: Does any team put a bigger licking on its opponents, week in and week out?
6. New Orleans Saints: What was that I kept hearing about Reggie Bush being a bust?
7. San Diego Chargers: Is this team destined to repeat its poor start of 2007 – and isn't that kind of a dangerous way to live?
10. New England Patriots: Hey, Bill Belichick, think maybe you should've played your backup quarterback a bit more in some of those blowouts last season?
11. Carolina Panthers: Steve who?
13. Buffalo Bills: If Bobby April isn't the best special teams coach in the business, who is?
14. Philadelphia Eagles: Is DeSean DeShiznit?
16. Indianapolis Colts: With the Vikings and Jags up next, could this get ugly early?
17. Tampa Bay Buccaneeers: Were the Bucs really playing Cover 2 against the Saints on Sunday, or was Monte Kiffin trying out a new "Cover No One" alignment?
19. Chicago Bears: They can't really be as good as they looked Sunday night … can they?
20. Washington Redskins: If Jim Zorn's headset were on fire, how many minutes would it take for him to consider removing it?
21. Seattle Seahawks: Hey, Mike Holmgren – are you sure you don't want to turn in your headset right now?
22. Houston Texans: I picked this team to make the playoffs – seriously?
23. New York Jets: Sure, Lord Brett Favre looked sweet on the long touchdown pass and the fourth-and-13 Hail Mary, but was there anything more impressive than his interception of Chad Pennington's potential game-winning pass to the end zone with five seconds remaining?
27. Detroit Lions: Hey, William Clay Ford, have you ever considered begging (and overpaying) Pistons general manager Joe Dumars to run your organization?
28. Miami Dolphins: Speaking for those of us who are fans of both men, is there any way we can continue the pregame shouting match between Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter and Jets assistant defensive line coach Bryan Cox … on pay-per-view?
29. San Francisco 49ers: Is it possible both Bay Area coaches will be fired by midseason?
30. Oakland Raiders: Commitment to impotence?
32. St. Louis Rams: What can I possibly say about their putrid opening-day effort that incisive St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz hasn't?