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MMQB Mail: Saints' dared to be great, Payton's gamble, HoF debate

"You get a chance to add the explosiveness of Reggie Bush to your team, and that's something that comes along maybe every five, 10 years. I don't care what the Jets offered us. We were keeping the pick. If that's a gamble, I'll gamble like that every time."-- Sean Payton, the day of the 2006 NFL draft, after the Saints eschewed offers to trade down and instead stayed with their first-round slot and picked USC tailback Reggie Bush.

OK, so Bush didn't turn out to be worth anywhere near second-pick-in-the-draft money. So the guy New Orleans picked 106 spots later, guard Jahri Evans, is a more valuable player to the team today. I exhume Payton's quote from a 2006 reporter's notebook for a simple reason: The Saints won Super Bowl 44 because they not only played Peyton Manning well on defense (any team limiting the Colts to seven points in the final 45 minutes is playing great defense) but also because they dared to be great over the last four years.

More about that in a second, but I want to make one thing clear: I don't like a bunch of things from the Colts' performance in the Super Bowl, and I hated the run-run-run series at the end of the first half. That's when the best two-minute quarterback of our lives was handing the ball to Mike "Practice Squad'' Hart to try to make a first down that turned out to be absolutely essential in the outcome of the game. Totally, absolutely ridiculous calls, in toto, on those three plays. Indefensible, in my opinion.

But even with that call, it's too easy to say the Colts went conservative all game and that's why they lost. Not true. They lost because Pierre Garcon dropped a second-quarter gimme that would have extended a drive and likely made the score 13-3 or 17-3 with five minutes left in the half. They lost because they got lazy and allowed the Saints to execute an onside kick to start the second half. And they lost because Manning threw the interception going in to tie it. They played their game, which is to not take major chances and let Manning make enough plays to win. And Manning missed on a play he shouldn't have late, and the Colts lost.

Now, about the Saints. Look at the decisions they've made since the Mickey Loomis-Sean Payton duo began running the show. Signing Drew Brees. Drafting Bush. Dealing for medical-risk Jonathan Vilma, and continuing to denude their draft by trading for personality-risk Jeremy Shockey. Stealing Gregg Williams from the Packers. (I might be exaggerating there; Williams never had a deal with Green Bay, though when he left New Orleans last winter after interviewing, he was slated to talk with Mike McCarthy about the job Dom Capers eventually took.)

Trusting undrafted Pierre Thomas to be a near-everydown back. Taking a deep breath and deciding not to overpay cornerback Ron Bartell in free agency this year, instead not upping the ante for Bartell and signing Jabari Greer instead. Knowing what an immature secondary needed and signing veteran smart guy Darren Sharper to lead the defensive backfield. And -- I know you won't think this is big, but it just shows in a micro sense how smart this team has been run -- signing Mike McKenzie to cover Randy Moss Nov. 30, when the Patriots came to town and the secondary was beaten up like a tomato can by Mike Tyson.

So when Payton walks through the locker room at halftime and tells key kicking-team members they're trying an onside kick for the first pre-fourth-quarter time in the 44-year history of the Super Bowl, we should not be surprised. It's Payton's M.O. And in a time when so many teams in the NFL play not to lose, let this be a lesson.

This game ought to be cause for celebration in Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo and all those places where fans are down and think they don't have a chance. Now the Saints, when Payton took over four years ago -- that was a team that didn't have a chance. Post-Katrina, we didn't know if the Saints would last another two years. That was one bad ballclub. I remember going to training camp that summer in Millsaps College and thinking ... well, I'll let Loomis pick up the story.

"You went to our camp in '06,'' he told me at the Saints' victory celebration at the Intercontinental Hotel around 1 Monday morning, "and you said, 'This is the worst team in the league.' Didn't you?''

"I think I did,'' I said.

Loomis beamed, because he knew what he and Payton did. They rebuilt a team in a city that was braced to lose it, somehow convincing enough good players and coaches that the team was worth building in such a fluid environment. There's a moral in there for so many teams in so many other cities. Hire smart people. Trust them to make bold decisions. Back them, even when the tide of public opinion rushes against you.

It's a great, great story. I'm so glad I've been able to cover it over the years.

***

Let the discussion begin about the first game of the 2010 season. The NFL season will open on NBC Thursday night, Sept. 9, at the Superdome. The Saints' schedule is not a very attractive home slate, except for two games. Seattle, Cleveland, St. Louis ... not good. So I'll give you the only scenarios the NFL and NBC Sports czar Dick Ebersol will discuss sometime after the Olympics:

1. Minnesota. My guess is the Vikings would be the No. 1 candidate if Brett Favre plays. And if the league and network don't know his status by late March or early April, I'd say they'd go to the next-best option, which might be the biggest ratings bonanza of any of these debut games ...

2. Pittsburgh. Steeler Nation brings in the numbers in football that only the Red Sox and Yankees do in baseball (of course, the football ratings are higher than any baseball ratings, but I'm talking in relative terms), so it would be a great ratings numbers to be sure. But I wouldn't be surprised to see the league try to save this game for November sweeps, either for NBC or for CBS. My guess is this would be an NBC game in November, because CBS is due to get New England-Indianapolis after NBC had the matchup the last two years.

3. Atlanta. A 50-to-1 shot, but it's the only division game (with Matt Ryan firing against Drew Brees) that would be remotely sexy enough for an opener.

***

Now for your Super Bowl and Hall of Fame e-mail:

INTERESTING COMPARISON. From Ross of Star, Idaho: "Any difference in your mind between Sean Payton's onside kick and Darth Hoodie's infamous fourth-and-two? My reasoning is that both were great, gutsy, high-risk/high-reward calls designed to 1) keep the always-dangerous Peyton Manning on the bench, and 2) give each team its best chance to win by dictating the circumstances of the game. The crime, for Bill Belichick and the Patriots, was failing to execute. What would have been the media verdict had Payton's crazy/brilliant gamble similarly failed?

Hmmm. A few people have asked about that, and I guess I'd say this. The Patriots went for fourth-and-two at their 28, up 34-28 with 2:08 to play against the Colts. Belichick thought it wise to go for two yards there instead of giving the ball to the Colts after a punt. The difference there was about 42 yards, I'd guess -- the Colts getting it at the New England 28 or 29 rather than at their own 30, approximately, after an average punt. So if they failed to pick up two yards, they'd be giving Manning a very short field, versus making him drive 70 yards.

On the onside kick, the object was the same -- prevent Manning from having a possession. But there were 30 minutes left, not two. And if the kick had failed, Manning would have gained 30 yards, approximately, if you estimate Indy would have gotten the ball at about the New Orleans 45. So I think the gamble wasn't as big as Belichick's, though I think the comparison is apt.

DAWSON IS AN ICON, THAT'S WHY. From Jerry Suiter of Indianapolis: "I noticed after the game that Len Dawson presented the Lombardi Trophy to the Saints. Dawson is a former Purdue quarterback with a Super Bowl victory on his résumé, just like Drew Brees. I was wondering if Dawson was selected because of the Purdue connection with Brees, and who selects the trophy presenters? If the Colts would have won, would a different person have presented the trophy to them?''

This was the 40-year anniversary of Dawson and the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl. It had nothing to do with the fact that Brees was in the game. They picked Dawson before the Saints won the NFC Championship.

MANNING SHOULD HAVE SHAKEN BREES' HAND. From Ted of Chicago: "When will the media make a huge deal about Peyton Manning running off the field and not shaking hands with the Saints, even as Brees was looking for him? I remember in your infatuation with the Patriots and Coach Belichick, you reminded us over and over and over about how Belichick didn't shake Eric Mangini's hand and what poor sportsmanship it was. Quit giving Manning the Favre treatment and call him out for a classless mistake.

I realized Manning did not hang around to shake hands with the Saints on Monday morning while reading the paper. I didn't see it Sunday night. Yes, I believe Manning should have sought out Brees on the field and shaken hands with him. That was the right thing to do. I also was told yesterday that he found Brees after the game and congratulated him. You seem pretty angry about this, by the way.

BRING IT ON. From Keenan Sanders of Columbus, Ohio: "Why isn't the Super Bowl played on a Saturday? I know it would shorten Super Bowl week, provide fewer days for corporate events and the game wouldn't be in prime time. But I think even more people would watch the game and not be tired for work the next day.''

I know the league has considered this. I think it all revolves around when the NFL believes it can get the best TV numbers, and analysts say the audience would be higher on Sunday night than Saturday night. By the way, if the game were on Saturday, it would certainly be in prime time, as it is on Sunday.

GOOD POINT. From Hank Messenger of Baltimore. "Just one comment. I would think that any player who needs a lengthy discussion or an impassioned plea from a hometown writer is not Hall of Fame worthy.''

Well, if a Dick LeBeau comes before the committee, and he hasn't played since 1972, or a Floyd Little, out of the game since 1975, I think it's fair to have a full airing of career accomplishments and how they stack up against players in the Hall. We have selectors in their 40s, so clearly they wouldn't have seen them play.

I WILL RESPECTFULLY DISAGREE HERE. From Alex Ochoa of Horizon City, Texas: "Peter, why do you think that there is corruption when it comes to voting for the HOF? Players need to make sure that they don't get on the wrong side of media and be a media darling instead.''

Corruption? Be careful there. I don't see it. As far as players being on the wrong side of the committee members, I can't speak for 43 others in the room. I can only speak for myself. And let me just say there was no love between me and Lawrence Taylor when I covered the New York Giants in the '80s. But when his name came up, I supported him and spoke up for him, despite some who had problems with his off-field problems. Charles Haley not getting in this year -- at least for me -- had nothing to do with the fact that he was awful to the media during his career.

LOOKING FORWARD TO IT. From Mark Rutledge of Madisonville, Ky.: "Hope you really do a Wednesday Morning Goalie from the World Cup. I have three boys who love soccer and we're all hooked. Enjoy the games.

I'm really excited about it. Thanks.

UH-OH. THE F-WORD REARS ITS HEAD. From Paul of Newburgh, N.Y.: "I have a hard enough time choking back your Favre love all season, if you ruin soccer for me I'm going to lose my mind. The game is growing and that last thing we need is you ruining it.

Ouch. I'll have to make sure to incorporate "Brett Favre'' into my first column from South Africa. Seven times.

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