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.
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
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."
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.
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."