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Thursday, September 6, 2007
Showcase of creative minds: Peyton and Payton

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- One guy spells his first name with an "e" and the other his surname with an "a," but the common denominator vowel shared by Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton in their soundalike handles is an altogether appropriate one.

O.

As in offense.

Take nothing away from the galaxy of offensive playmakers who'll line up in Thursday night's NFL season opener at the RCA Dome. It is, after all, an assemblage that includes at least one future Hall of Fame wide receiver, two other pass catchers with 1,000-yard seasons on their résumés, three superb tailbacks, and, oh, yeah, Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who led the league in passing yards in 2006.

Peyton Manning
Colts QB Peyton Manning torched the Saints the last time he saw them.

But it is Peyton and Payton, one directing his team with all those maddening hand signals before the snap, and the other using his magical headset, who will likely determine the outcome of what is expected to be a high-scoring matchup.

How high-scoring? Conjure up the image of vintage American Football League games, pre-merger. Back then, even losing teams seemed to score in the 40s every week, with so many passes filling the skies that the league should've hired air traffic controllers.

Then consider the last time these franchises met, on Sept. 28, 2003 at the Superdome. Manning passed for 314 yards and six touchdowns. The teams combined for 76 points, 40 first downs and 781 yards, averaged a gaudy 6.6 yards per snap, and scored on six of seven red zone possessions as the Colts prevailed 55-21.

Now it's four years later. The Saints' offense has improved with Brees and Reggie Bush and Marques Colston. Those numbers from 2003 may seem like little more than appetizers for the offensive feast that will be on display. It will be the league's sixth Thursday night opener, and most likely its highest-scoring one (the current high is 51 combined points in 2004).

Since neither man has much to do with his own team's defense, it isn't as if Payton and Manning will be matching wits in the much-anticipated opener. But the two may have to match points and hope their respective defenses break serve at some point. Clearly, these are two men capable of elevating the offenses over which they preside.

Sean Payton
Saints coach Sean Payton crafted the league's top offense last season.

"Both of them look at the game in a special kind of way," said New Orleans cornerback Jason David, who played the first three seasons of his career with the Colts before defecting to New Orleans as a restricted free agent this spring. "They see things other people don't see, look at things and see the possibilities that are out there. They can kind of [conceptualize] stuff and then transfer it to the field.

"I've watched them both, and there's a lot in common. I mean, their names are sort of the same, and they are probably on the same kind of wavelength [offensively]. They're kind of on a different level."

They certainly have taken their respective offenses to lofty heights.

New Orleans led the NFL in total offense and passing offense in 2006, Payton's debut season as an NFL head coach, and was fifth in scoring. Indianapolis was second in scoring, third in overall offense and second in passing offense. Each team scored 30 or more points in six regular-season games.

There is a big difference between calling plays and executing them, between being the plotter and the performer, but Payton and Manning have similar effects on their teams.

Payton is adroit at putting even modestly talented performers into position to make plays. He craftily employs personnel packages, motion and route combinations to characteristically create advantageous matchups.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, there is no better quarterback in the league, maybe in recent NFL history, at identifying coverages and getting the ball to the open receiver than Manning.

"Obviously, they approach it with the same kind of mentality," Brees said. "I think Sean's background as a quarterback allows him to see things developing through the eyes of a guy who has played the position."

A three-time All-American, Payton departed Eastern Illinois having thrown for the third-most yards in Division I-AA history at the time. He had cameos in the Arena League, CFL and NFL but came to understand that his greatest strength was designing an offense, not running it.

On Thursday night, on a national stage, he'll get to see how those designs stack up against the Super Bowl champions and their superstar quarterback.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.