With Peter King on his annual four-week summer vacation, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton took time away from vacationing in the Florida panhandle to write today's Monday Morning Quarterback column. Payton, who was voted NFL Coach of the Year in 2006, is entering his fourth season in New Orleans.
As I open this week's MMQB, the final one before Peter returns next week, I would like to thank him for considering me to fill in for him. I am the first NFL coach to pen this column, and with that, I feel a certain pressure to make sure I provide his followers with something of substance. So, let's get started.
• We are now just 10 short days from the start of most NFL training camps. Every team can officially begin practice 15 days prior to its first preseason game; the Bills and Titans can start earliest because they play in the annual Hall of Fame game Aug. 9 in Canton, Ohio.
One of the great things about our league is the optimism each team and its fan base share at the start of a new year. History has told us there will be four to six new playoff teams this season. Who are this year's Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens or Arizona Cardinals? If I had to choose one non-playoff team from last season that has a chance to make it into the 2009 postseason it would be the New York Jets. I think Rex Ryan will do a great job of creating a culture that lends itself to winning. I also love Mark Sanchez as a young quarterback prospect. We will find out soon enough.
• So, Peter, what's with putting the Saints 24th in your offseason power rankings? I mean, where is the respect? Clearly, there is more to this than meets the eye. Here is my thought. Peter graduated from Ohio University, and earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to coach at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. These two schools are polar opposites and hate each other. That is where I believe his angst really lies. Or maybe Peter's mad because we cut Ohio University long-snapper Ryan Senser not once, but twice last year before the start of the season. That's probably it, because I highly doubt it's my play-calling.
• A tip of my visor to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Seahawks coach Jim Mora for climbing Mount Rainier. Pretty good stuff for a great cause. Now, if I could only convince Goodell to have Will Smith and Charles Grant climb to the top of Mount Rainer in lieu of serving their four-game suspensions. That would be a pretty good tradeoff.
• If there is one player who climbs right back into the pilot's seat this season and doesn't miss a beat, it's Tom Brady. Indications are he is 100-percent healthy and ready to go. I'm not going out on a limb here, but there are certain players who have an amazing drive for greatness, and he is one them.
When we signed Drew Brees in 2006, he had an injured shoulder. The most important factor in our decision was Drew's work ethic and desire to be special. It is no doubt that one of the hardest things teams have to do each year leading up to free agency and the draft is evaluate players. How important is the game to the player? Will money change his work ethic? Does he see himself as being great?
Clearly the business of building teams is not an exact science, but I can say with certainty that players like Brees, Brady and Peyton Manning give us a barometer for the type of player we are seeking. Players who are driven, motivated and play the game with passion, just like those three do week in and week out.
• What a coup for ESPN to get Jon Gruden under contract for Monday Night Football. Like in the NFL, ESPN identified the player it wanted and went and got him. (And what was NFL Network thinking? You never let the player get on the plane back home without a contract!)
Having spent some time with Jon this offseason, I was reminded his passion for our game is unchallenged, his desire and knowledge of our game is unquestioned. He will make his mark in television, just as he did every year on the sideline. In 1997, he gave me my first NFL job. I prefer him up in a television booth somewhere with a coat and tie on, but I know it's only a matter of time until he's back on the sidelines causing us all fits once again.
• A lot has been written and discussed regarding the tragic death of Steve McNair. How we choose to remember him can vary greatly from person to person. However unfortunate, that has changed to some degree. I'll remember him as the Titan of a quarterback who led his team within one yard of a Super Bowl victory in a classic final drive. I still see that final drive very clearly. On one play, McNair scrambled for what seemed like an eternity, to complete a pass and move the chains. I remember a strong player who was a difficult sack with a powerful lower body. I remember a player who had one of the warmest smiles in our business. As Nashville police ruled his unnecessary death a murder-suicide, which is now sadly etched in our memory, I choose to remember Steve McNair as a fierce competitor we lost much too soon.
1. I think everyone reading this column wishes the best and a full recovery to Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Having coached nine years in the NFC East, I know every coach and player who had to prepare for his defense respects the hell out of him. Jim is an NFL legend and we want him back on the sidelines.
2. I think former Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson and ex-Seattle defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy should have a spot reserved for them in Canton. This is coming from an offensive coach who believes it is time to fill the Pro Football Hall of Fame with more of the NFL's defensive elite.
3. I think I heard that Jimmy Buffett wants to see a Dolphins-Saints Super Bowl. I would like that as well, especially since it would mean I'd be facing my good friend Tony Sparano. And despite Buffett's recent business partnership with the Dolphins, I think he would be wearing a Saints jersey in that Super Bowl scenario.
4. I think Jim Grobe and his coaching staff have done a great job at Wake Forest. We drafted two of their players this season, safety Chip Vaughn and linebacker Stanley Arnoux, and both are impressive young men.
5. I think the day the Texans opened their new stadium, Jerry Jones began dreaming of a new facility for the Cowboys. This year it opens and I hear it is magnificent. One of the many features is its mall-type pavilion in one of the end zones. Do you remember Bo Jackson's touchdown run in Seattle where he ran right into the tunnel? I can just imagine the Bengals playing there and Chad Ochocinco scoring a touchdown and running out into the mall and right into a TGI Friday's, grabbing a quick French fry and a $5,000 fine.
6. I think congratulations are in order to our favorite NFL writer, Peter King. During next month's Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement festivities, Peter will be honored with the prestigious Dick McCann Memorial Award, given to Peter by his peers in recognition of his long and distinguished career as a pro football writer. Well deserved.
7. I think Steve Sabol and NFL Films do a magical job of capturing our games, the special moments and preserving those memories for years to come.
8. I think these are my New Orleans, La., thoughts of the week:
a. A long and loud standing ovation should go out to the state of Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal, Saints owner Tom Benson and Saints CFO Dennis Lauscha for crafting and recently signing a long-term deal that will keep the Saints where they belong -- the Superdome. To top that good news, NFL owners awarded New Orleans its 10th Super Bowl in 2013, in what will be a completely refurbished Superdome.
b. I think the City of New Orleans is fortunate that its two major sports franchises have leaders like Drew Brees and Hornets point guard Chris Paul. They are players you build your team around, but while they are magnificent at their profession, they are equally as important to our community.
9. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I think that Lance Armstrong has trained and ruthlessly pushed his body into top form to ride the 2,000-plus miles of the Tour de France not to come in second place. He attacks everything he does with unrelenting desire and drive. His return has once again brought worldwide prominence to his fight to end cancer. After yesterday's first stage in the Alps, maybe an unheard of eighth victory is not in the cards. Can Alberto Contador ask for a stronger teammate? Livestrong Lance!
b. The Drake Hotel in Chicago has a long and storied tradition with a great location and great views of Lake Michigan. History has it that one of the rooms is haunted. If you can get there, it makes for a perfect step back in time. They say Al Capone ran some of his illegal businesses right from the quaint little Tap Room bar located just below the lobby.
c. Craziest thing I have seen in awhile. In early June, I had a chance to take a trip back to my hometown of Chicago. Just a simple golf weekend, a Cubs game at Wrigley and a nice steak at Gibson's. While I was enjoying the Cubs game against the Twins, outfielder Milton Bradley caught a routine fly ball and proceeded to throw the ball into the bleachers. The problem was there was only one out, and a run scored. In that scenario, Bradley is paid to know the situation. He quickly became the poster child for the importance of being aware of your situation. That is precisely why we practice game situations every week, so players know what to do.
d. Congrats to the U.S. men's national soccer team, finishing second in the recent Confederations Cup in South Africa. In the coming weeks, they will play Mexico in a 2010 World Cup qualifying match in Mexico City. In 23 games, the U.S. has never defeated the Mexicans on their home soil (0-22-1), but this is the year it could happen. I believe they have their best chance to beat Mexico and I think we should all be pulling for the upset and support this team.
e. If you're looking for the best sand beaches in America, look no further than the Fort Walton beaches along Florida's panhandle. They are fantastic. Our family has vacationed here the past five years. I am actually typing feverishly to meet my deadline as I sit on my porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Plenty of sunshine and not overly crowded. If you like getting in crystal clear water, swimming and surfing, you will love this spot. The water temperature is perfect, high 70s, low 80s. A great place to visit and I use it to unwind before the rigors of the 24-7 NFL season.
e. Kenny Chesney has owned the summer concert business for the past several years. No other entertainer is remotely close. Growing up, many of us went to stadiums to see our favorite performers, such as Bruce Springsteen, REO Speedwagon and Journey, but these days no one does stadiums anymore except for Chesney. Even in a bad economy he is sold out at every stop. He attracted 65,000 strong at Soldier Field last month. Unbelievable.
10. I think I like working on an upcoming game plan more than I do writing a column. I was terrible in English and I have to thank Greg Bensel, our vice president of communications, for helping me through this project. It doesn't make it any easier that the temperature outside is 85 and Bob Marley's Is This Love is playing in the background. I think it's five o'clock somewhere!