It is the world'slongest bridge, and for Sean Payton the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway provides adaily 23.9-mile dose of peace and noise. Steering his black Mercedes S550through the predawn darkness, baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, theNew Orleans Saints' rookie coach clears his mind on the way to work by blastingKenny Chesney tunes so loudly it's as though the country superstar were sittingin the backseat. Singing along with unnecessary roughness, Payton gets lost innostalgic lyrics such as those in I Go Back: "I go back to the the feel ofa 50-yard line/A blanket, a girl, some raspberry wine/Wishin' time would stopright in its tracks/Every time I hear that song, I go back...."
Once he arrivesat the Saints' facility in Metairie, Payton shifts his focus to the future.It's a tack that has served him well: Rather than dwell on the team's sordidhistory--and on last year's collapse, during a post-Katrina displacement thatwas unlike anything previously endured by a professional sports franchise--the42-year-old coach has stressed chemistry and discipline as the keys torebuilding. Payton has so far done the best coaching job of 2006, quietly atfirst, but a bit more conspicuously after Sunday, when his Saints rocked theSuperdome with a thrilling, 27--24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. NewOrleans is fast becoming Payton's Place, and with a 5--1 record that nowincludes a gut-check win over a bona fide Super Bowl contender, the Saints'secret is out.
"Everybodykept talking about this as a 'respect game,' a 'statement game' for us,"said outside linebacker Scott Fujita, who had a sack, an interception, eighttackles and two punishing pass-breakups on Sunday. "Being able to win it,especially the way we did, is a real confidence booster, and that comes back toCoach Payton."
Though Paytondidn't script Sunday's dramatics--the Saints jumped to a 17--3 halftime lead,surrendered 21 consecutive points and won on John Carney's 31-yard field goalas time expired--the coach did lay out a blueprint that convinced his playersthey could defeat Philadelphia. Before coming to New Orleans, Payton had beenan offensive assistant for seven years in the NFC East (with the New YorkGiants from 1999 to '02 and the Dallas Cowboys for the past three years), andat a meeting last Wednesday he told the team he'd gone 9--6 against Phillyduring that span. Stressing the importance of avoiding turnovers andthird-and-longs, Payton assured his Saints, "Follow my formula, and we'llwin the game."
Since taking overin January for the fired Jim Haslett, who produced the lone playoff victory inthe franchise's four decades (in 2000) but won just three games last year,Payton has pushed all the right motivational buttons. Though he ran a gruelingtraining camp--"He was basically pissing on his turf," says oneveteran--Payton convinced his players, 28 of whom were not with New Orleans in'05, that teamwork transcends individual pedigree. One night this summer inJackson, Miss., he began a training camp meeting by listing the 2004 U.S.Olympic basketball team's roster on an overhead projector. "Look at thesecoaches," he told the Saints. "Look at these players. This is one ofthe greatest collections of talent ever assembled. But they didn't win. Theyweren't the best team."
Though determinednot to belabor past problems, including last year's temporary move of theteam's headquarters to San Antonio when Hurricane Katrina rendered much of NewOrleans uninhabitable, Payton wasn't afraid to confront the causes of thefranchise's inglorious legacy. "You have to look at why they've only wonone playoff game in 40 years," he said earlier this month. "There's areason. We're in a place where, within 10 minutes, you can get a daiquiri, sitat a blackjack table and go to a strip club--and you can do it at four in themorning. If you've got the type of people on your team who are susceptible tothat, they'll find trouble. So yeah, character's important. New England showedus the model the past five years."
It's tough tomake the case that a team with Reggie Bush, the Heisman-winning No. 2 overallpick in the '06 draft, lacks star power. But for every player on the Saintswhose name casual fans might recognize (Bush, quarterback Drew Brees, halfbackDeuce McAllister, wideout Joe Horn, and that's about it) there are a dozenlow-profile, high-impact contributors. Take the team's offensive line, whichhas allowed just six sacks in six games--none against the Eagles' formidablepass rush--despite breaking in two new starters, former Cleveland Browns centerJeff Faine and right guard Jahri Evans, a 2006 fourth-rounder out of DivisionII Bloomsburg. Or check out New Orleans's brand-new trio of startinglinebackers: Fujita (free agent, Cowboys), Mark Simoneau (trade, Eagles) andScott Shanle (trade, Cowboys). "They're better than you think,"McAllister says. "If one or two of them doesn't go to the Pro Bowl, it's ashame." The unheralded backers nearly got a rather untraditionalintroduction from teammate Mike McKenzie when the veteran cornerback did thehonors for ESPN's Monday Night Football telecast of the Saints' 23--3 victoryover the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 25. Noting that he and his fellow backers areall Caucasian, Fujita (whose adoptive father is Japanese-American) saysMcKenzie "was going to say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing wrongwith your television set....' Instead, he called me the Asian Assassin."There has been talk of nicknaming the trio the Snow Patrol, and McKenzie cameup with an even edgier moniker for the team's defensive unit, which has sevenAfrican-American starters on the defensive line and in the secondary. "Wecall it the Oreo," he says, laughing.
Anotherunexpected treat for the Saints was the selection, four picks from the end oflast April's draft, of Hofstra wideout Marques Colston. The 6'4"231-pounder (think Wayne Chrebet with platform cleats) made an immediateimpression upon his arrival in New Orleans. After only a few drills at theteam's postdraft rookie camp, Colston dropped to his knees from back spasms,causing Payton to bark to receivers coach Curtis Johnson, "Will you justget him out of here?" But by the end of training camp Colston was sodependable--and difficult to cover--that Payton traded last year's startingsplit end, Donte' Stallworth, to the Eagles for Simoneau and a conditional '07pick. On Sunday, Stallworth sat out his second consecutive game with ahamstring strain, while Colston (27 receptions, 414 yards) caught his fourthtouchdown pass of '06, a seven-yard slant from Brees that put the Saints up17--3 just before halftime.
At that point the68,269 fans at the Superdome harbored visions of a blowout over the favoredEagles. But Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb (19 of 32, 247 yards, twotouchdowns) rallied his team to three straight touchdowns, the last coming onthe first play of the fourth quarter, when wideout Reggie Brown took amisdirection pitch 15 yards to the end zone.
Earlier in thegame, Brees had thrown an interception to Lito Sheppard, ending his string of143 passes without a pick; on the play that set up Brown's score, he'd thrownanother, to defensive tackle Darwin Walker. Yet as the sixth-year quarterbackcame off the field following Walker's interception, he clapped his hands andassured his teammates, "We're all right. We'll be fine."
It was inanticipation of such moments that Payton persuaded Saints management to give areported $60 million six-year contract to Brees, the ex--Chargers starter whobelieves he'd still be in San Diego were it not for the torn right labrum hesuffered in the final game of '05. Instead, Brees was allowed to become a freeagent, and the Saints--after five years of Aaron Brooks, whom some teammatesregarded as aloof, self-absorbed and flawed as a communicator--eagerly embracedan extroverted quarterback with obvious leadership skills.
Though Payton'sgame plan often revolves around his marquee running backs--McAllister,rebounding from a right ACL tear last October, has resumed his role as one ofthe NFL's most potent inside runners, while Bush, with 38 receptions for theyear and a game-winning punt return against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twoSundays ago, has been a multipurpose threat--his confidence in Brees isevident. On Sunday coach and quarterback experimented with no-huddle snaps,Payton signaling to Brees at the end of one play to rush immediately to theline and run another. The tactic seemed to catch Philly off guard when, with12:52 remaining, Brees (27 of 37, 275 yards) delivered his biggest pass of theseason, a 48-yarder to Horn that tied the game at 24.
That play hadbeen set up on New Orleans's first drive. Brees, out of a similar alignment,had rolled to his right and flipped a six-yard pass to tight end Ernie Conwell.Later, while studying an overhead photo on the sideline, Brees and Hornconcluded that Eagles strong safety Michael Lewis had been "sitting" onthe 11th-year wideout's move to the outside. They alerted Payton, who told themthat later they'd run the same play with a slight adjustment--Horn, instead ofbreaking outside, would stutter-step and cut back to the post; Payton callsthis a Tupelo route, a reference to Horn's hometown in Mississippi. For theSaints the pivotal play was sweet as Tupelo honey: Brees, on second-and-sevenfrom the Philly 48, looked at Horn (six catches, 110 yards) just before thesnap and said, "This is the time. Let's go." Brees's pump-fake andHorn's double move left Lewis flat-footed.
Even when theSaints forced an Eagles punt on the ensuing possession and took over at theirown 15 with 8:26 to go, it seemed implausible that McNabb, the NFL's bestplayer so far this season, was finished for the day. But Brees, who completedhis final 11 passes, coolly engineered a 16-play drive that drained the clockto three seconds. That left it to Carney, whose game-winning kick set off thethird consecutive celebration at the recently reopened Superdome. "Each oneof our home games we've won in a different manner," Brees noted Sundayevening. "Our defense shut down Atlanta, and against Tampa it was specialteams. This time it was the offense's turn. That's what a team is allabout."
those words, likeChesney's ballads, are music to Payton's ears. Two hours after the game,driving across the causeway to his North Shore home, the boyish-looking coachgeared up for some well-deserved fun as he headed into a bye week with aone-game lead over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South. Payton'sbrother-in-law had come to visit, along with 20 of his most raucous friends,and a house party awaited that the coach said would include "food, a canoefull of beer, margaritas, kids swimming in the pool and lots of loudmusic."
That, naturally,brought the conversation back to Chesney, to whom Payton was introduced sixyears ago by then Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. A self-described"wannabe Chesney Deadhead," Payton became a casual friend of thesinger's, a connection he says he parlays into tickets for "one or twoshows a year. Well, maybe more than two. My wife gets mad when I'm seeing himfor the fourth time in one tour. If I wasn't coaching, I'd love to be the guywho sets up the band's equipment. Just make me a roadie, and I'll nevercomplain."
Sorry, Sean, butright now you're the Big Easy's biggest act--and 53 players and a whole lot ofSaints fans are screaming for more.
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