Well-calculated gambles by Payton

February, 8, 2010
2/08/10
1:12
AM ET
Sean PaytonAP Photo/Julie Jacobson"When he got on stage at the after-party with all his players, all I saw was his face and I thought, 'That's the Sean I remember,' " said Patrice Payton, the coach's sister.
MIAMI -- You’re going to hear a lot about Sean Payton being a gambler in the coming days. Don’t believe a bit of it.

A gambler is someone who is taking a 50-50 (or less) shot. Payton is not that dicey. He’ll only get risky when he’s convinced the odds are slanted heavily in his favor. So how the heck do you explain Payton’s choice to have a rookie punter try an onside kick to start the second half of the first Super Bowl in franchise history?

Throw in the fact you’re playing the mighty Indianapolis Colts and the even mightier Peyton Manning and the odds of such a play working couldn’t have been more than what? 10 or 20 percent? Tops?

"We felt during the week it was more than a 60 or 70 percent chance," Payton said. "We felt not [just] good, we felt real good."

That play, more than anything else that happened Sunday night, is going to symbolize how the New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV at Sun Life Stadium. Throw in Payton’s decision to challenge a two-point conversion that initially was ruled a failed attempt and a choice to let kicker Garrett Hartley, who is only slightly more than a rookie, kick a 47-yard field goal near the end of the third quarter and you’ve got a lot of big chances.

Enough to subject a coach to months, maybe years, of second guessing if he doesn’t hit on most of them. If you want to get technical, Payton was three out of four on big chances. He also gambled on a fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line when he called a run by Pierre Thomas instead of passing or kicking a field goal near the end of the first half.

Thomas was stopped short of the goal line, but that was the only gamble Payton missed on all night and it turned out that it didn’t really cost him anything. His defense, which was built on gambling, bailed him out and the Saints got the ball back in time for Hartley to hit a 44-yard field goal as the second quarter ended and cut Indianapolis’ lead to 10-6.

That set the stage for the decision that changed the fate of the entire hard-luck New Orleans region and will live forever in Super Bowl lore. In the locker room, Payton told his team he was going to pull one of the biggest surprises in Super Bowl history.

Shock the world, but not the Saints. Not if you really know what Sean Payton’s all about. He’ll take some chances, but only when he knows there’s a decent shot they’ll work.

"Everyone knows that Sean Payton plays hard and aggressively," New Orleans offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "He plays to win the game."

"That gives us confidence when he does something like that because it shows us how much confidence he has in us," linebacker Scott Fujita said.

It gives some of the Saints confidence, but Payton’s dare was something the Colts and the rest of the world didn’t see coming. And, remember, I said only some of the Saints.

Payton told Thomas Morstead, who had been practicing onside kicks for all of 10 days, that he’d be doing it to open the second half.

"For 20 minutes, I sat at my locker terrified," said Morstead, who handled only punting duties in college. "Not worried, terrified."

Morstead said he came out of the locker room and worked on his punting as the teams warmed up for the second half. He got so caught up in the bluff that he almost forgot to practice kickoffs. He squeezed one in right before it was time to do the real thing.

"I showed them the same thing I’d done on every kickoff all season long -- deep and to the right hash," Morstead said. "That’s all anybody’s seen out of me."

Well, anybody who wasn’t at a Saints practice the last 10 days. What Morstead did next was try to make sure he kicked the ball at least 10 yards and put some backspin on it. That’s exactly what happened. After a scramble, New Orleans safety Chris Reis was ruled to have recovered the ball.

"What we were trying to do was create another series [for the offense]," Payton said.

Another series in which the Saints scored the first Super Bowl touchdown in franchise history on a 16-yard pass from Drew Brees to Pierre Thomas. And a series less for Manning and the Indianapolis offense to work the magic they had all season, but didn’t really have Sunday night.

Yeah, the Colts came right back down the field and scored a touchdown to take a 17-13 lead, but the damage had been done and the tone for the rest of the game had been set by the onside kick. Payton followed that gamble by taking another, letting Hartley kick a 47-yard field goal to cut the deficit to a single point.

What you need to know here is that Payton took a gamble on his field goal kickers earlier this season. With Hartley suspended for the first four games of the season for testing positive for a banned dietary supplement, the Saints signed veteran John Carney. He kicked very well and the Saints stayed with Carney long after Hartley’s suspension was over.

The dilemma was that Carney was dependable, but didn’t have a very strong leg. Hartley continued to kick well in practice. Late in the season, Payton elected to release Carney and make him a "kicking consultant" and let Hartley handle the kicking. Could Carney have made the 47-yarder?

Maybe, but the odds were probably less than Payton’s magical 60 to 70 percent. Hartley made it with ease.

Speaking of chances, Payton took his last big one after Brees hit Jeremy Shockey with a 2-yard touchdown pass to give the Saints a 22-17 lead with 5:42 remaining. Instead of leaving Manning with enough time to beat him with a touchdown, Payton chose to go for the two-point conversion.

At first, Brees’ pass to Lance Moore was ruled incomplete. But Payton, with help from assistant coaches who had seen the replay, challenged the call. The play was overturned and the Saints were given two points.

The gambling didn’t really stop there, but that’s only because it started so long ago. You want to know what Payton’s biggest gamble of all was?

Forget about taking the New Orleans job just after Hurricane Katrina because it was a chance for Payton to move up. And forget about the signing of Brees soon after -- yes, there were questions about his surgically-repaired shoulder, but there had been evidence before that he could play.

Payton’s real leap came after last season when it became painfully obvious he had a great offense, but absolutely no defense. He fired defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and got Gregg Williams. Once upon a time, Williams had a reputation as a great defensive mind. That got sullied during stints as a head coach in Buffalo and as a coordinator in Washington and Jacksonville. There were also whispers about how Williams could be a bit of a self-promoter and more style than substance.

Payton threw out $250,000 of his own salary to make sure the Saints got Williams. It turned out to be the best bet he ever made.

Williams came in the door preaching aggressive defense. It worked nicely at the start of the season, but seemed to fizzle around midseason when the Saints ran into some injury problems. The Saints got healthier as the playoffs came and played good defense in victories against Arizona and Minnesota.

But Manning wasn’t supposed to be like Brett Favre or Kurt Warner at the end of their careers. He was supposed to be fool-proof, but Williams and the Saints ended up fooling Manning and sealing the game. Tracy Porter picked off Manning and returned it for a touchdown with 3:12 remaining.

"This is kind of a redemption that makes me feel a lot better," Williams said. "I’m really happy for the people of New Orleans. They adopted me. When I came to town in January, I tried to tell them I wasn’t a savior."

No, not a savior, just part of one very calculated gamble that played off.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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