Sports Nut

Big, Not Easy

How Sean Payton’s daring play-calling won the New Orleans Saints their first Super Bowl.

Also in Slate: Seth Stevenson reviews the best and worst Super Bowl ads. Remember what the game is all about with this Magnum Photos gallery on football. 

Head Coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints

For the last four years, fans on the message board have been adding to a thread called “Write the Times-Picayune’s Headline for the Day After the Saints Win the Super Bowl.” The 13 pages of suggestions that piled up between 2006 and the opening kickoff of Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIV—“Convoy of Snow Plows arrives in Hell!”; “Holy *Bleep*!!!”; “We Won! We Actually Won!!!”; and “New Orleans Runs Out of Liquor,” to name a few—reveal that, even for the most-optimistic Saints fans, this day was unimaginable. When it actually happened—holy bleep, the Saints really, seriously won the Super Bowl 31-17 over the Indianapolis Colts —the Times-Picayune’s real-life headline writers shrugged and admitted defeat. On the field, Saints coach Sean Payton held up a paper that said “World Champs.” The paper delivered to subscribers this morning said, simply, “Amen!” Yeah, there really are no words.

If New Orleanians couldn’t picture their team winning the Lombardi Trophy, the Saints played like a team that didn’t show up to lose. Head coach Sean Payton’s Super Bowl philosophy, it appeared, was that it was better to look foolish than to act timid. Down seven at the end of the second quarter, Payton chose to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal rather than kick an easy field goal. The Saints got stuffed. The coach’s response: an onside kick to start the second half, the first in Super Bowl history before the fourth quarter. Win or lose—or lose whiletaking huge risks that could make you look totally ridiculous—Payton had decided the Saints would be aggressors. After an unholy midfield scrum, New Orleans recovered that onside kick and drove for a score to take the lead. “I wasn’t worried,” Saints kicker Thomas Morstead said after the game about the surprise onside try, which he executed flawlessly. “I was terrified.”

The Saints had good reason to be terrified of Peyton Manning. A narrow victory over Brett Favre and the Vikings in the NFC championship game revealed that the Saints’ defense struggles to stop a good quarterback without a silly amount of fumbles and interceptions. In the Super Bowl, New Orleans showed there’s one other way for a not-so-great defense to stop a great quarterback: Don’t let him take the field. Thanks to some time-killing second-quarter drives and Morstead’s onside kick, the Saints kept the Colts star and New Orleans native on the bench for a shockingly long stretch in the middle of the game.

When he did get a chance to fling the ball around, Manning showed the Saints were right to play keep-away. The Colts’ QB repeatedly evaded the New Orleans blitz—no “remember me shots” in this game, despite defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ promise—and zipped passes to tight end Dallas Clark. Struggling to stop the pass, the Saints’ defense also couldn’t get a hand on running back Joseph Addai. All that kept the Colts from running up the score in the first half was a third-down drop by a wide open Pierre Garçon.

And then, after holding the Saints on fourth and goal with less than two minutes to go, the Colts stopped themselves. Rather than let Manning try to throw the team into field goal range, Indy strangely complied with the Saints’ plan to keep the NFL’s most valuable player on the sidelines. After three faint-hearted running plays, the Saints had the ball back with enough time to cut their halftime deficit to 10-6 on a 44-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.

Nonetheless, New Orleans’ second half comeback wasn’t solely the product of momentum or an audacious onside kick. The Saints won for the reason they usually win: Drew Brees’ scary accuracy. After the 2008 season, a show called Sport Science asked Brees to throw a football at an archery target 10 times; he hit the bull’s-eye on all 10 throws. The Saints’ quarterback doesn’t do much worse with huge defensive linemen trying to kill him. Brees set an NFL record this season by completing 70.6 percent of his passes. He did even better on Sunday night, completing more than 82 percent of his throws. The final stats for the deserving Super Bowl MVP: 32-39 for 288 yards and two touchdowns.

Brees moved his team against a Colts defense that tackled surely and didn’t allow any big plays. All year long, the Saints piled up points with long passes. In the Super Bowl, they had just two offensive plays longer than 20 yards. In today’s NFL, though, there’s no way to keep a good passing game down without a dominant pass rush. By the second half, Indy’s star defensive end, Dwight Freeney, was hobbling around on his busted ankle, and Brees had time to thread the ball to Pierre Thomas for 12 yards, Devery Henderson for nine, and Marques Colston for eight. Every ball was on somebody’s fingertips, and the Saints receivers didn’t drop anything after Colston let a ball bounce off his face in the first quarter.

Despite Brees throwing close to a perfect game, the Colts still had a 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter. In a game of huge kicks, both onside and conventional—a hat tip to Hartley, the first kicker in Super Bowl history to make three field goals of longer than 40 yards—Matt Stover’s missed 51-yard field goal with 10:39 to go had the biggest effect on the outcome. Instead of giving the Colts a four-point lead, the errant kick set up the Saints at their 40-yard line—field position they’d use to drive for the game-winning touchdown.

Stover deserves no blame for missing that crucial kick—he hasn’t made a 50-yard field goal since 2006. Blame Colts coach Jim Caldwell. Sure, it would’ve taken Sean Payton-esque chutzpah to go for it on fourth and 11 from the 33-yard line in a one-point game. But to hell with convention: When your elderly kicker has no chance of knocking it through, why have him try?

Aside from Caldwell’s iffy game management, this was a Super Bowl free of all things that make football annoying. The refs kept their flags in their pockets and CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms kept their feet out of their mouths, sticking to the on-field action rather than waxing poetic about the Saints uniting a hurricane-ravaged city. (Dishonorable mention does go to Katie Couric, who asked Brees in a pre-game interview, “Did you help save New Orleans, or did New Orleans help save you?”) There was also just one contested call—a replay reversal on Lance Moore’s catch for a two-point conversion—that, by comparison with your average Super Bowl imbroglio, barely qualified as controversial. (Saints fans should send black-and-gold bouquets to CBS for the copious super-slo-mo replays of Moore lunging the ball across the goal line.)

Even after Brees, Moore, and the guy in the replay booth gave the Saints a 24-17 lead, Peyton Manning still had the ball with a chance to tie the score. Manning trails just Dan Marino in come-from-behind fourth quarter victories, and the Colts had seven such wins this season. One of those comebacks came when Patriots coach Bill Belichick—showing confidence, or boldness, or stupidity—chose to go for it on fourth down from inside his own 30-yard line  rather than willingly put the ball in Manning’s hands.

On Sunday night, the Saints had no choice but to let the comeback king do his thing. The thing Manning did, shockingly, was seal the Super Bowl for his hometown Saints. On third and 5 from the Saints’$2 31, Manning threw a quick slant to Reggie Wayne. It’s a play the Colts have run a million times, one that’s impossible to defend when a receiver and quarterback hit their marks. This time, the Colts went 0-for-2. Wayne appeared to slip and didn’t make a sharp break on the ball. Manning, maybe too eager to stick with an old, reliable play call, didn’t notice that Tracy Porter—the Saints cornerback who picked off Favre to save the NFC championship game and came out for Super Bowl XLIV with the Superdome and the Lombardi Trophy shaved into the side of his head—had the route sussed out. Porter jumped in front of Wayne, caught the ball in full stride, and streaked 74 yards for the game’s final points. “I’m sure when Peyton Manning was growing up he always wanted to throw the TD pass that gave the Saints a Super Bowl win,” ESPN the Magazine’s Jorge Arangure wrote after the game. “Now he has.”

For a team that went two full decades without a winning season and had just two all-time playoff wins before 2010, this ridiculous ending was just as plausible as any. When the game was over, I tried to call home and couldn’t get through to anyone for 15 minutes. “All circuits are busy”—that is, everyone who knows what it means to miss New Orleans was dying to find out what they were missing. When I managed to reach a friend who’d been watching the game in the French Quarter, he told me that all the folks in Brees jerseys had sprinted full out for Bourbon Street after the final horn. Once everybody was smashed together, dancing on cars and screaming “Who dat!” there was no doubt it had really happened. We won! We actually won!!!