I don't quite remember now if it was at last year's NFL Scouting Combine or the league's annual meeting the following month, but I do recall the gist of Sean Payton's message to me. With a slightly bemused look bordering on one of his trademark smirks, he had a question for me at the end of a quick interview we were conducting:
"Could you do me a favor this year and not pick us to go to the Super Bowl?'' he said. "OK? We're 0-for-2 when you do that.''
I reminded the Saints head coach of his request/edict when I ran into him a week ago in Fort Lauderdale at the NFL commissioner's party, just two days before his Saints pulled their 31-17 stunner over the favored Colts in the Super Bowl. Offering congrats on the job of getting New Orleans to the big game, I couldn't help but point out that thanks to him I was now 0-for-the-last-three years when it came to the Saints.
CLICK HERE TO REVISIT DON BANKS' 2009 PREDICTIONS
"You wouldn't let me pick you this year, and now you get to the Super Bowl,'' I said, in mock indignation. "I wasn't wrong. I was just early.''
Payton is obviously a tough guy to please, because he's been gigging my SI.com colleague Peter King all season about the Saints being ranked 24th in Peter's offseason NFL rankings. Pick 'em to win, pick 'em to lose, and either way Payton might have a playful beef with you. Such is the life of someone who gets paid to prognosticate about the always unpredictable NFL.
It's true, I did pick the Saints in both 2007 and 2008 to reach the Super Bowl, forecasting a loss to New England the first year, and a loss to San Diego the second. Instead they went 7-9 and 8-8 and missed the playoffs both years. And honesty compels me to tell you I wanted to pick them to win the NFC again this preseason, because I really believed the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would finally turn out to be the difference maker in New Orleans. I think I even wrote that a couple times.
Alas, Payton's only-half-serious request stuck in my head, and the thought of forecasting the same NFC champion three years running convinced me to choose Green Bay to go to the Super Bowl from the NFC. I loved how the Packers looked in August, but I didn't exactly abandon the Saints, because I had them winning the NFC South and making it to the NFC title game, whereupon they would lose at Green Bay. Do I get any credit for getting them at least close to what proved to be their destiny? I mean, they weren't 24th in my power rankings (Sorry, Pete. Couldn't resist).
Payton's bit of reverse psychology on me aside (or was it mine on him and his team?), remembering our long-ago exchange this week got me wondering how the rest of my preseason predictions fared this year? What did I get right? What did I get wrong? Nostradamus I'm not, but in the interest of accountability, it's better to shine the light on my own track record before someone else does it and makes me look completely clueless. Yes, I'm talking to you, dear readers.
So, looking back at the 2009 season, here's what I thought I knew then, and how it looks now. The blindfold, please:
• Nobody knew how to spot a loser better than I did this year. I predicted the eight teams that would finish last in their divisions, and I nailed every one of them: Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Kansas City in the AFC; Washington, Detroit, Tampa Bay and St. Louis in the NFC. Eight for eight.
Thank you. Thank you very much.
• But I was mostly wrong when it came to recognizing winners. Of my eight predicted division winners, I got only three correct: New England in the AFC East, San Diego in the AFC West, and New Orleans in the NFC South. Baltimore, Tennessee, the Giants, Seattle and Green Bay didn't come through for me, meaning I didn't even bat .500.
Oh, and did I mention New England over Green Bay was my preseason Super Bowl pick? At least they both made the playoffs, albeit losing on the same day in the first round.
• I was fairly accurate when it came to divining the 12-team playoff field. I had seven of 12 teams correct: New England, the Jets, Baltimore, and San Diego in the AFC; and Dallas, Green Bay and New Orleans in the NFC. Certainly not great. But not embarrassing either.
• But the Seahawks to win the NFC West? The Bears to make it as an NFC wild-card? They went a combined 12-20, and never really came close to contention this season. Seattle fired Jim Mora, and Chicago's Lovie Smith was granted a one-year reprieve by Bears ownership. What was I thinking?
• I was right about Rex Ryan getting his Jets into the playoffs in his first season, and not many folks can say that. (Except I should point out that I called Ryan's teams "frauds'' after they slipped to 4-5 after starting 3-0.)
I even wrote the following: "The Jets and Patriots are both going to the playoffs. It's just a matter of who's the division winner and who's the wild card?'' That one stood up nicely, even if Ryan did try to eliminate his own team after a Week 15 loss to the Falcons.
• Undoubtedly my biggest swing and miss of the entire season was predicting the Colts would finally slip out of the 12-win neighborhood into the nine-win range, thus missing the playoffs for the first time since 2001. That sure sounded edgy in August. It sounded brain-dead by September. And even worse by the time the Colts raced to a 14-0 record, not losing until after Christmas.
I do believe in the Colts. I do believe in the Colts. I do believe in the Colts. I do believe...
• I was at least on to something when I picked someone other than Pittsburgh to win the AFC North, writing the Steelers were headed for the slightest of post-Super Bowl letdowns (we're talking 10-6 territory). But I tried to have it both ways. I picked Pittsburgh as an AFC wild-card qualifier, behind the Ravens. The Steelers went 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
Should have been bolder. Should have picked the Bengals.
• On the flip side, I didn't foresee the other Super Bowl team from 2008 making a return trip to the playoffs, and the Cardinals did just that, winning the NFC West a second consecutive season and earning a first-round playoff win. I predicted another case of Super Bowl loser syndrome in Arizona, and there wasn't any.
The Cardinals won 11 games, including the playoffs, and I think coach Ken Whisenhunt noticed my lack of faith in his team, because after his team dismantled Minnesota in December, he punctuated an answer to one of my questions with: "Not bad for a Super Bowl hangover, huh?''
I deserved that. Yes I did.
CLICK HERE TO REVISIT SI.COM'S 2009 PREDICTIONS
• I was a bit more prescient when it came to predicting the best team that wouldn't make the playoffs, as our editors at SI.com asked us NFL experts to come up with in the preseason. I went with Atlanta, a playoff team in 2008 that finished 9-7 and missed the postseason this season. Not a bad choice. Pittsburgh or Houston (both 9-7) would have worked pretty well, too.
• But I had the Browns (4-12) as my team with the worst record (it was the 1-15 Rams), I foresaw Kurt Warner as the star who would have a subpar season (he didn't), and tabbed Tom Brady as my league MVP (it was that other MVP-level quarterback, Peyton Manning).
I also, cough, cough, wrote the following: "Having won the Jay Cutler sweepstakes -- and rapidly at that -- the Bears have instantly upgraded their quarterback position to the best in the NFC North.
That would have been deadly accurate were it not for Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers this season. Oh, well, at least I had company on the Cutler bandwagon. Isn't that right, Lovie?
• I didn't fall for every new quarterback, however. After Week 2 of the preseason, I wrote this about the top two QBs taken in the 2009 draft: "Mark Sanchez and Detroit's Matthew Stafford might both still surprise us this season, but the sooner we let the Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco comparisons go, the better.''
Ryan and Flacco both went 11-5 as rookie starters, leading their teams to the playoffs in 2008. Sanchez had early success, and then some more in the playoffs, but he was hardly the reason the 9-7 Jets squeaked into the postseason. He was nearly the reason why New York didn't make it. And in Detroit, though Stafford had a few highlights, it was a rough first trip around the league for the ex-Georgia Bulldog.
• I voiced plenty of skepticism about Favre's ability to climb off a tractor in mid-August and execute the Vikings offense like it was his native language, and then he proceeded to do just that. In fact, he proceeded to do even better than that, putting up his career-best numbers in Minnesota in the process of turning 40.
For Favre, the big 4-0 was more about the Vikings' record after the first month of the season than any cringe-inducing milestone birthday.
• In retrospect, I can feel good about my take on the Cowboys video boards controversy in August. I didn't get too worked up about one Titans punter grazing one of Jerry World's new 60-yard long TV screens, lamenting the possible competitive implications. Basically I said let's see if it happens again before we over-react. And it didn't. Not once all season. Sometimes the sky doesn't fall, even if it looks like it might.
• I was very, very big on the Titans in the preseason. I repeatedly wrote that they were a team without any glaring holes. I fell in love with their new receivers, said the loss of Jim Schwartz and Albert Haynesworth would be overcome, and had them going all the way to the AFC title game, where I had them losing to New England.
Then they proceeded to start the season 0-6, getting nipped 59-0 in snowy Foxboro in that last one. You can't get analysis like that just anywhere.
• On a smarter, more keen-eyed note, I selected Buffalo's Dick Jauron as the head coach who won't be back in 2010 (he was the only coach fired midseason), didn't think much production would come of Washington signing Albert Haynesworth to a nine-figure free-agent deal or Philly adding Michael Vick (neither move did), and predicted that Miami would take a step back in 2009 due to a much tougher schedule (the Fish went from 11-5 to 7-9 and out of the playoffs).
Also, while my preseason choices for several individual awards were not direct hits, they were at least in the ballpark. I had Aaron Rodgers as Offensive Player of the Year (it was Chris Johnson); Jared Allen as Defensive Player of the Year (it was Charles Woodson, but I had the division right); Mark Sanchez as Offensive Rookie of the Year (it was Percy Harvin); James Laurinaitis as Defensive Rookie of the Year (it was a different linebacker, Brian Cushing); and Mike McCarthy as Coach of the Year (Marvin Lewis won it).
By the time my midseason review rolled around I had a better handle on the award winners, naming Manning my MVP of the half-season, Harvin my OROY, Cushing my DROY, Brady my Comeback POY, Lewis my Coach of the Year, and the Saints' Gregg Williams as my Assistant Coach of the Year. Apparently if you give me until Week 9 or 10, I'll pretty much nail it. Every time.
• But did I mention I was one of only two experts at SI.com to predict the Saints would upset the Colts last weekend? You're welcome, Sean.