The day Sean Payton got his first NFL head coaching gig, the hotshot assistant head coach/quarterbacks coach excitedly shared the big news with his boss, then-Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells. He'd just been hired by the New Orleans Saints, and there'd be a news conference to introduce him as the franchise's 14th coach the following day.
"You'd better figure out what's been keeping them from winning the last 38 years," Payton remembers Parcells telling him, "or else three years from now you'll be having another press conference."
Payton figured it out, taking the Saints to the NFC championship game in his first season. Three years later, he delivered the first Super Bowl triumph in franchise history and set off one of the biggest parties that North America has ever known.
When I saw Payton in Foxborough, Mass., last August as the Saints conducted joint training camp workouts with the New England Patriots, a big topic of conversation was the so-called "Super Bowl hangover." Six months removed from his team's landmark victory in Miami, Payton faced daily questions about whether his partied-out players could recapture the intensity and focus they'd summoned in 2009.
On Monday night in the Georgia Dome, we finally got our answer. Coming off a disheartening defeat to the Baltimore Ravens that all but killed their hopes of repeating as NFC South champs, the Saints delivered a pre-playoff message to the conference-leading Atlanta Falcons and the rest of the NFL, powering their way to a 17-14 victory that put them into the postseason on a decidedly emphatic note.
For the first time since they vanquished Peyton Manning(notes) and the Indianapolis Colts on Super Sunday, the Saints (11-4) looked like the fierce, formidable team that no one will relish facing. Overcoming a pair of potentially ruinous fourth-quarter interceptions by star quarterback Drew Brees(notes), New Orleans locked down the Falcons (12-3) in impressive fashion, limiting Atlanta to one offensive touchdown.
Though the Saints likely won't overtake the Falcons for the division title, first-round playoff bye or No. 1 overall seed – New Orleans would have to beat the Tampa Bay Bucs next weekend and have the abysmal Carolina Panthers pull off a road upset of the Falcons to have a shot at the first slot – they're suddenly looking like a team capable of coming out of the wild-card round and accomplishing big things.
It was quite a rebound from the previous week's stinker in Baltimore, where the Saints got gashed for 208 rushing yards by Ray Rice(notes) and friends. The film session upon their return was a horror show, and the reaction from hyper-intense defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was pretty scary, too.
"I [expletive] them hard," Williams told me after Monday night's victory. "[Assistant head coach/linebackers] Joe Vitt did, too. I'm proud of them. They responded."
Williams' message wasn't subtle, but it was simple: Tackle better, and repossess the football from the opponent, and all will be well.
"I just [expletive] them about tackling," Williams said. "That's our specialty. Yards after contact. They pissed me off and we went back to training camp tackling and takeaway circuit drills. It paid off."
The biggest payoff came early in the second half when the Falcons, trailing 10-7, were a yard away from taking the lead after an end-zone pass-interference penalty on cornerback Tracy Porter(notes). On first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) predictably handed the ball to powerful halfback Michael Turner(notes), who was stuffed for no gain by nose tackle Remi Ayodele(notes) and safety Roman Harper(notes).
Turner got the ball again on second down, and this time he ran up against a massive wall of defenders. Defensive end Jeff Charleston(notes) popped the ball loose, and linebacker Marvin Mitchell(notes) fell on the ball for the team's second fumble recovery of the game – and one of the biggest takeaways of the NFL season.
This wasn't an aberration. The Saints shut down the run all night, holding Turner to 48 yards and the Falcons to 75, more than a third of which came courtesy of Ryan's scrambles. Veteran safety Darren Sharper(notes), for one, believed his team's improved effort was a direct result of Williams' prodding.
"He should [have reacted that way]," Sharper said Monday night. "We tackled bad last week and had something to prove."
Now the Saints, having survived a spate of underwhelming victories and ugly defeats (most glaringly to the Cardinals and Browns), have a chance to prove that there's no such thing as a Super Bowl hangover – or, if there is, it has a shelf life that expires the following Christmas.
Payton, for what it's worth, never discounted the popular notion that the Crescent City's temptations had worked against its pro football team's fortunes in the decades before his arrival.
"We're in a city that's easily distracted," he told me back in August. "It's the Big Easy – and there's nothing easy about what we're trying to do. So yeah, it's something you have to take into account."
As the Saints convened for training camp, Payton tried to have some fun with the Super Bowl hangover angle. At the first meeting he handed his players two lists he'd compiled. The first: Seven Reasons Why We Won't Be Successful In 2010. The second: Ten Reasons Why We Will.
"I liked that second list better," he said with a laugh.
The first list addressed the popular notions that the team would have trouble handling its post-championship revelry and the accompanying distractions. It tried to downplay those potential pitfalls, even poking fun at flamboyant tight end Jeremy Shockey's(notes) hospitalization the previous spring after he reportedly suffered "seizure-like symptoms" in the team's weight room.
"Hell," Payton told his players, "it wouldn't be an offseason if Shockey didn't pass out."
That drew laughs, but Payton tried to impart some serious thoughts as well. He told the Saints that they had everything they needed in their locker room – toughness, leadership, the will to win – to overcome any perceived loss of focus. He talked about the team's crisp practice tempo and stable of skilled assistant coaches and other attributes that would allow New Orleans to have a legitimate shot at repeating.
We still don't know whether that will happen – there are some pretty dangerous teams in the championship hunt, including the Falcons, and Payton's team will likely have to win three postseason games on the road to get back to the Super Bowl – but after Monday it's clear that the Saints won't spend January sitting around on their couches, rubbing their aching temples, sipping Alka-Seltzer and dealing with the fallout from the party of the century.
As Payton told his players at that training camp meeting, "Hey, we live in New Orleans. We're experts at recovering from hangovers."
And, as the Falcons learned Monday, Payton seems to have become a full-fledged expert at getting his team to peak at the right time. I'm guessing that has to make Parcells pretty proud.
IF I SLIPPED JON GRUDEN SOME TRUTH SERUM …
After a Ryan incompletion in the third quarter, Gruden paid homage to the defensive deception employed by each team, telling boothmate Ron Jaworski, "Well, both these defenses are mixing up their looks as well as any teams we've seen all year, Ron. I mean, they're disguising coverages extremely well. They're not sending text messages or emails to Matt Ryan telling him what coverage we're in. Very impressive defense, particularly on third down, by both of these teams."
So much better in the world in which bottled water is spiked with the serum:
"Well, both these defenses are mixing up their looks as well as any teams we've seen all year, Ron. I mean, they're disguising coverages extremely well. They're not sending text messages or emails to Matt Ryan telling him what coverage we're in. Speaking of text messages, I got a pretty interesting one from my agent, Bob LaMonte, a few minutes ago. It read, 'Jed York called – wants 2 bring u back 2 da bay. U down?' And you know what I replied? 'Hells yeah! LOL!' I mean, think how cool that would be if I took over the 49ers, the franchise that the great Bill Walsh made famous. Al Davis didn't like it when my face was splashed all over billboards in the Bay Area, cause HE wanted to be the face of the Raiders? How do you think he'd like seeing my face on those same billboards with a big ole SF on my ballcap? Come on, Jed – show me the money!"
TUESDAY MORNING HAIKU
In a skin-tight shirt
Hochuli will set us straight
Wish I had those guns
ONE E FOR FREE
I'm to the point where not even swearing at you would make me feel better at how pathetically bad your power rankings are! You still have the Packers so far down when they statistically dominated the supposed "hottest" and best team in football on their home turf in the sunday night game with a backup qb! And bradys shouldn't have that many pass attempts without a pick because he should have had at least 2 that game! Can't believe Woodson dropped that 1! Seriously are you trying to make yourself look dumb as hell? The Packers should be in the top few teams of your rankings and when they do make it into the playoffs you had better not become a bandwagon fan and start kissing their ass in your articles because I might just have to find you and follow you around and berate you in front of everyone I can for being such a fake full of crap can't admit it moron!! You're starting to make cole look smart and thats just sad!!!!!!!!!!
OK, first of all, I resent the fact that you closed out an email insulting my intelligence by taking a cheap shot at my colleague Jason Cole. How dare you question Jason's intelligence? Only we at Y! Sports are allowed to question his intelligence! As for the Packers, you're probably not aware that I've picked them to win the NFC in each of the past three seasons. Obviously, I'm very high on their potential. The reality is, however, that they've lost to six teams, including the Dolphins (cough), Lions (cough, cough) and Redskins (cough, cough, cough). I'm all for factoring in bad bounces, near misses and a general sense that a team is better than it sometimes performs, but in the end "one of the top few teams" has to back it up in the victory column. Last week, placing an 8-6 Packers team in the ninth slot seemed reasonable to me, and after Sunday's impressive triumph over the Giants, they'll likely be higher in Wednesday's "32 Questions." Ultimately, if the Packers are as good as you believe they are – and as good as I thought they were going into the season – they'll push their way through that glass ceiling. Just ask the 2007 Giants, who didn't ascend to the top spot of my rankings until after Super Bowl XLII. I'm pretty sure they're fine with it, at this point.