Who Dat, indeed: Two nobodies play vital roles in Saints' Super win
Thomas Morstead and Chris Reis involved in Saints' turning point
Pierre Garcon's first-half drop was a turning point for Colts
Quotes of the Week, Fine 15 and 10 Things I Think I Think
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- It's right, it's fair, it's just, it's good, it's shocking. You were not dreaming (or nightmaring, if you live in Indiana). The Saints have won the Super Bowl.
As the fifth team bus -- the one with mostly family and friends of the team -- sped from the stadium to the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami for the most raucous of postgame parties, this merry band of Saints partisans sang and chanted and Who-Datted to their heart's content. On this bus was an eclectic mix, just like New Orleans itself. A couple of seats from the front was the political couple who live in New Orleans, James Carville and Mary Matalin. Behind them sat the 97-year-old archbishop of New Orleans, Philip Hannan, a good friend of owner Tom Benson. In the back was Reggie Bush and his famous-for-being-famous girlfriend, Kim Kardashian. Democratic Party mega-fundraiser Calvin Fayard, a Louisiana attorney, was aboard too.
"Oh when the Saints ... come marching in ...'' They did that one for a while. And "You Are My Sunshine,'' the state song, which has roots to former Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, and a couple of "Who Dat'' songs. It got quiet for a minute, and Carville piped up loudly: "I still can't believe we won the Super Bowl!''
The play that signifies it all was on the mind of everyone on the bus. In the middle of the rolling party, someone else piped up: "Can you believe we called that onside kick?''
Oh, I can. It had Sean Payton written all over it.
It's the Super Bowl, and I'm going to write about an onside kick, and about two absolute nobodies who so powerfully influenced the outcome of the biggest game in the history of the New Orleans Saints.
That's one of the reasons football's such a great game. The 45th guy on the roster can make the play of the day in the biggest game of the year. David Tyree did it in Super Bowl 42. Chris Reis, with help from a very nervous kicker, did it in Super Bowl 44.
"Ambush,'' Payton said cavalierly, almost diffidently, as he walked by kickoff man Thomas Morstead in the Saints locker room at halftime Sunday night.
Perfect. Ambush. That's the name of the Saints' onside kick, the one that continued the Colts' downfall in Super Bowl 44. The reason it's so perfect is that it's right for Payton, and right for this derring-do team with the cocky defensive coordinator and the only slightly less cocky head coach and players and fans who have yearned for so long to deserve to be cocky. In this case, Ambush was so mind-blowing because:
a. Morstead never attempted an onside kick in a game before Sunday night in his life.
b. Morstead never practiced onside-kicking until 12 days ago.
c. Morstead can be a bundle of nerves.
And so Payton walked by Morstead's locker and dropped that little bomb on him, and he told the rest of the special-teams leaders, and 25 minutes still were left before the start of the second half. Morstead sat at his locker, looked straight ahead and tried to keep his heart from pounding out of his chest.
"I wasn't worried,'' Morstead said later. "I was terrified. He dropped it on me near the start of halftime, not near the end, and it's such a long halftime. All I could think of was how stupid I'd look if the kick doesn't go 10 yards, or if I blow it.''
When the Saints looked at the Colts on tape, they saw two up-men on the front line of the Indy kick-return team cheating. That is, when the kicker approached the ball, two guys on the right of the kick-return unit -- as the kickoff team looked ahead, to the left -- turned and began retreating to set up their blocks for a return just before the ball was kicked. So when Payton saw this, he figured the Saints would definitely try an onside kick at some point of the game.
In each of their three practices last week, the Saints worked on the onside kick five times. They christened it "Ambush'' for the element of surprise, obviously. And they practiced it the same way every time: with Morstead, the neophyte, approaching the ball from the left, as right-footed soccer-style kickers do, and kicking the ball almost across his body to the left, to the exact spot where the Saints thought the two Colts would be leaving early. Payton knew he wouldn't try the kick early in the game; he wanted time to set the Colts up. Before the game, he made a point to talk to ref Scott Green and his crew to be on the lookout for it so they wouldn't be surprised, and so they'd be ready to determine possession in the inevitable scrum.
New Orleans got a big lift just before halftime when a Garrett Hartley field goal narrowed Indy's lead to 10-6. Payton knows how lethal Peyton Manning is, and he knew he ran the risk of giving the Colts 30 extra yards if the onside kick failed, but he knew it wouldn't fail.
He put his trust in the hands of a kicker, Morstead, kicking the first onside kick of his life, and in a special-teamer, third-year safety Chris Reis, perhaps the most anonymous of the 45 Saints who dressed Sunday. Morstead because he was the kicker, Reis because he was the feistiest of his kick-chasers and would scratch and claw for the ball if he had to.
"I've been kicking off to the right all year,'' Morstead said later. "So when I approached the ball, they left early again and I just pushed the ball to the left. The way I practiced it, it was supposed to hit and spin back. I had a little bit of confidence in it, because every time he called it in practice this week it seemed to work. But still, like I said, I was terrified. I just tried to make sure it went 10 yards, and then just prayed.''
It went 10 yards. It went off Hank Baskett, the fifth wideout on the Colts. The ball bounced toward Reis, plowing single-mindedly toward the spot he knew the kick was going to settle, 10 to 12 yards downfield. At the 42-yard-line of the Saints, Reis dove for the ball, and the scrum began. (Officially, linebacker Jonathan Casillas was credited with the recovery, but Casillas and other Saints said it was Reis who came away with the ball.)
The ball at first lay underneath Reis' legs as bodies flew in trying to get it. "I was able to get the ball into my hands and just cradle it here,'' Reis demonstrated for me later in the locker room, with his hands cradled around his stomach, slightly bent over. "So I just pulled it tight to my body and held on.''
"White ball!'' Reis heard one official yell in the mayhem. The Saints were wearing white. Good.
"Blue ball! Blue ball!'' he heard another official yell. The Colts were blue. Bad.
"So I just figured I better hang onto it for dear life,'' he said. "The Colts were punching at it and grabbing for it, trying to get it out. But I didn't care if they broke all my fingers. There was absolutely no way in the world I was going to let go of that ball. That was our ball.''
The scrum lasted 90 seconds. Officials and players were pulling players out of the pile, and a couple of them just circled back and got back into the scrum and tried to get near the ball again. Did the ball change hands down there? Reis swears no. And when the last man left the turf, Reis had the ball. Six plays later, Drew Brees fired a pass to running back Pierre Thomas that resulted in a 16-yard touchdown, and the Saints had their first lead of the day.
"I can't believe it,'' said Morstead, a rookie from SMU. He's a tall kid, wiry and athletic and thoughtful. "I still can't. You've got to love playing for a coach who puts that much trust in his players. I mean, that was a pretty big risk. And now, to sit here and know it helped us win ... ''
Morstead seemed like he was in a daze.
"You know, every year you see guys in all sports after they win the championship, and they talk about how it seems so surreal. I'm the same way. I'm just trying to soak it all in and realize what happened.''
What happened, fella, is you and Chris Reis just made a play that was the biggest one in preventing Peyton Manning from winning his second Super Bowl, and sent your city into orbit. That's all.
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