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It is the world's longest bridge, and for Sean Payton the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway provides a daily 23.9-mile dose of peace and noise. Steering his black Mercedes S550 through the predawn darkness, baseball cap pulled low over his forehead, the New Orleans Saints' rookie coach clears his mind on the way to work by blasting Kenny Chesney tunes so loudly it's as though the country superstar were sitting in the backseat. Singing along with unnecessary roughness, Payton gets lost in nostalgic lyrics such as those in I Go Back: "I go back to the the feel of a 50-yard line/A blanket, a girl, some raspberry wine/Wishin' time would stop right in its tracks/Every time I hear that song, I go back...."
Once he arrives at 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 sordid history--and on last year's collapse, during a post-Katrina displacement that was unlike anything previously endured by a professional sports franchise--the 42-year-old coach has stressed chemistry and discipline as the keys to rebuilding. Payton has so far done the best coaching job of 2006, quietly at first, but a bit more conspicuously after Sunday, when his Saints rocked the Superdome with a thrilling, 27--24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. New Orleans is fast becoming Payton's Place, and with a 5--1 record that now includes a gut-check win over a bona fide Super Bowl contender, the Saints' secret is out.
"Everybody kept talking about this as a 'respect game,' a 'statement game' for us," said outside linebacker Scott Fujita, who had a sack, an interception, eight tackles 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 to Coach Payton."
Though Payton didn'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 goal as time expired--the coach did lay out a blueprint that convinced his players they could defeat Philadelphia. Before coming to New Orleans, Payton had been an offensive assistant for seven years in the NFC East (with the New York Giants from 1999 to '02 and the Dallas Cowboys for the past three years), and at a meeting last Wednesday he told the team he'd gone 9--6 against Philly during that span. Stressing the importance of avoiding turnovers and third-and-longs, Payton assured his Saints, "Follow my formula, and we'll win the game."
Since taking over in January for the fired Jim Haslett, who produced the lone playoff victory in the 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 grueling training camp--"He was basically pissing on his turf," says one veteran--Payton convinced his players, 28 of whom were not with New Orleans in '05, that teamwork transcends individual pedigree. One night this summer in Jackson, Miss., he began a training camp meeting by listing the 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team's roster on an overhead projector. "Look at these coaches," he told the Saints. "Look at these players. This is one of the greatest collections of talent ever assembled. But they didn't win. They weren't the best team."
Though determined not to belabor past problems, including last year's temporary move of the team's headquarters to San Antonio when Hurricane Katrina rendered much of New Orleans uninhabitable, Payton wasn't afraid to confront the causes of the franchise's inglorious legacy. "You have to look at why they've only won one playoff game in 40 years," he said earlier this month. "There's a reason. We're in a place where, within 10 minutes, you can get a daiquiri, sit at a blackjack table and go to a strip club--and you can do it at four in the morning. If you've got the type of people on your team who are susceptible to that, they'll find trouble. So yeah, character's important. New England showed us the model the past five years."
It's tough to make the case that a team with Reggie Bush, the Heisman-winning No. 2 overall pick in the '06 draft, lacks star power. But for every player on the Saints whose name casual fans might recognize ( Bush, quarterback Drew Brees, halfback Deuce McAllister, wideout Joe Horn, and that's about it) there are a dozen low-profile, high-impact contributors. Take the team's offensive line, which has allowed just six sacks in six games--none against the Eagles' formidable pass rush--despite breaking in two new starters, former Cleveland Browns center Jeff Faine and right guard Jahri Evans, a 2006 fourth-rounder out of Division II Bloomsburg. Or check out New Orleans's brand-new trio of starting linebackers: Fujita (free agent, Cowboys), Mark Simoneau (trade, Eagles) and Scott 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 a shame." The unheralded backers nearly got a rather untraditional introduction from teammate Mike McKenzie when the veteran cornerback did the honors for ESPN's Monday Night Football telecast of the Saints' 23--3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 25. Noting that he and his fellow backers are all Caucasian, Fujita (whose adoptive father is Japanese-American) says McKenzie "was going to say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing wrong with your television set....' Instead, he called me the Asian Assassin." There has been talk of nicknaming the trio the Snow Patrol, and McKenzie came up with an even edgier moniker for the team's defensive unit, which has seven African-American starters on the defensive line and in the secondary. "We call it the Oreo," he says, laughing.
Another unexpected treat for the Saints was the selection, four picks from the end of last April's draft, of Hofstra wideout Marques Colston. The 6'4" 231-pounder (think Wayne Chrebet with platform cleats) made an immediate impression upon his arrival in New Orleans. After only a few drills at the team's postdraft rookie camp, Colston dropped to his knees from back spasms, causing Payton to bark to receivers coach Curtis Johnson, "Will you just get him out of here?" But by the end of training camp Colston was so dependable--and difficult to cover--that Payton traded last year's starting split end, Donte' Stallworth, to the Eagles for Simoneau and a conditional '07 pick. On Sunday, Stallworth sat out his second consecutive game with a hamstring strain, while Colston (27 receptions, 414 yards) caught his fourth touchdown pass of '06, a seven-yard slant from Brees that put the Saints up 17--3 just before halftime.
At that point the 68,269 fans at the Superdome harbored visions of a blowout over the favored Eagles. But Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb (19 of 32, 247 yards, two touchdowns) rallied his team to three straight touchdowns, the last coming on the first play of the fourth quarter, when wideout Reggie Brown took a misdirection pitch 15 yards to the end zone.
Earlier in the game, Brees had thrown an interception to Lito Sheppard, ending his string of 143 passes without a pick; on the play that set up Brown's score, he'd thrown another, to defensive tackle Darwin Walker. Yet as the sixth-year quarterback came off the field following Walker's interception, he clapped his hands and assured his teammates, "We're all right. We'll be fine."