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Payton plays to win, and does

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Rich Hofmann
February 8, 2010
— Sean Payton coaches a football team that for decades personified the stubbornness of futility. He coaches in a city that in recent years has come to represent the struggle over adversity. That is what the leader of the New Orleans Saints carries with him, from training camp to Super Bowl XLIV. It is a burden he seems to handle easily.

Payton plays to win. It is an easy thing to say; the words flow naturally enough. It is a harder thing to do, though—harder and harder as the pages of the NFL calendar turn, and the games get bigger, and the regular season melts into the playoffs, and the playoffs finish in the Super Bowl.


Nobody calls an onside kick to start off the second half of the Super Bowl, trailing by four. Nobody. That it is a better-percentage play than you think—


really about a coin flip when you do it by surprise—does not matter. To call an onside kick in that situation is to risk disaster—and, worse, in today’s world, it is to risk ridicule. There is a reason people go by the book—because, if it all blows up on you, you can shrug and say, “I went by the book.”


Sean Payton? He called the onside kick Sunday night.


And it worked.


There were a dozen things that happened afterward, all worthy of words and paragraphs and posterity. The Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts, 31-17, and an entire team really does deserve the credit. Quarterback Drew Brees was fabulous from the second quarter on. Cornerback Tracy Porter returned an interception for a touchdown with 3:12 left that sealed it. There were a bunch of crucial plays in between—and kicker Garrett Hartley was money on three field goals of more than 40 yards.


“We talked about it at halftime,” said Payton. “It’s a credit to everyone of these players here … They carried out the plan. I’m just proud of this team and this coaching staff. And everyone back in New Orleans gets a piece of this trophy. Here we go.”


But it was the coach who ignited them. It was the onside kick that reinvigorated them. That moment will forever define Payton now. Even if the Saints had ended up losing, it would have marked him with distinction.


Of course, there are two sides to moments like that. There is a winner, and there is a loser. With that, the goat is old pal Hank Baskett, Kendra’s husband. The onside kick went to him, and the former Eagles wide receiver had it and then he didn’t have it. What followed was the mother of all pileups. You might never have seen another scrum like it, right in front of the Saints’ bench, about 10 players actually involved and dozens of Saints players and coaches jumping up all around and several officials just diving into the mess and trying to ascertain possession amid the maelstrom.


It took a long time. It was combat worthy of the game, and the moment. And in the end, when the Saints’ Jonathan Casillas was the one ruled to have recovered it, the enormous pro-Saints crowd at Silly Name of the Week Stadium—OK, Sun Life Stadium—filled the Super Bowl with a roar. Because Payton had filled his team with gumption.


Earlier, near the end of the first half, Payton had gone for it again. It was not nearly as unconventional as the onside kick, but it was another move that went against the book. On fourth-and-one, trailing by seven, Payton decided to go for it rather than take the easy field goal. He didn’t get it, either, when running back Pierre Thomas was stopped by Colts linebacker Gary Brackett.


It turned out OK, though. When the Saints’ defense held, they still were able to drive close enough for a field goal. They got to halftime at 10-6, and then Payton had a half-hour of setting up the stage, and music by The Who, and taking apart the stage, to try to figure out what to do.


Sean Payton? Who are you?


Someone who plays to win.


Try to think of a better legacy.



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