Saints pay dearly for Payton's horrible call

NEW ORLEANS -- Jon Gruden and Sean Payton are two of the NFL's most creative, exciting offensive play-callers.

Facing each other Sunday in a crucial NFC South showdown, the two coaches turned into magicians, each attempting several trick plays. In the first half, Payton was successful on a flea-flicker that went for 40 yards. Gruden countered with reverses, crisp fakes and even a direct snap to a running back.

It created a can-you-top-this competition. In the end, Payton went too far, tricking himself and the Saints and all but killing their playoff hopes while basically handing the Bucs the division in a stunning 27-23 Tampa Bay win.

And you can blame it on the "Superdome Special."

That's a play Payton used last year when his Saints played their first home game in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. Quarterback Drew Brees hands off to Reggie Bush, who then flips the ball to wide receiver Devery Henderson coming around on the reverse. The fans loved it.

That's because it worked.

On Sunday, it didn't.

Indeed, there was nothing special about this play other than that it was a spectacular failure and perhaps the worst play call in an NFL game since Giants offensive coordinator Bob Gibson called for a handoff to Larry Csonka in the waning moments of a 1978 game against the Eagles.

No doubt you remember that play. When Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik fumbled the handoff, Herm Edwards picked up the loose ball and ran 26 yards for the Eagles' winning touchdown.

It didn't take long for Gibson to be fired.

That won't happen to the Saints coach this week. But there was no hiding the fact that Payton blew it. And he's the first to admit it.

"That was a disappointing loss and probably the worst job I have done as a head coach since I have been here," Payton said. "Obviously, I regret the play call that resulted in the fumble that cost us the game. It's disappointing for our players and our staff to lose a game like that. We had every opportunity to win it."

Leading 23-20 with 3:30 left, the Saints just needed to run out the clock and already had reached midfield. The Bucs had just one timeout left. That's when Payton called for the "Superdome Special."

But unlike last year, when Henderson -- who prefers the flip instead of a handoff -- took the pitch and raced 11 yards for a touchdown against the Falcons, the receiver never got control of the ball. The pitch was behind Henderson, and the ball fell to the turf, with the Bucs' Jovan Haye recovering at the Saints' 37.

Eight plays later, Tampa quarterback Luke McCown hit Jerramy Stevens for a 4-yard TD pass. And 14 seconds later, the game was over, with the Bucs improving to 8-4 while opening up a three-game lead over the Saints and Panthers with four games remaining.

Certainly, Payton's decision wasn't the only costly blunder around the league Sunday. Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs admitted costing the Redskins an emotional game against the Bills by calling two timeouts to ice Bills kicker Rian Lindell, the second resulting in a 15-yard penalty that made it easier for Lindell to kick a winning field goal. And in Indianapolis, Jaguars wide receiver Reggie Williams committed a dumb personal foul that cost his team a potential touchdown in a tight game.

But in New Orleans, those moves weren't the topics of conversation. Instead, it was the local team's having to reconstruct the ill-fated play and explain why it was even called.

"It's one of those things where if we are able to handle that exchange, it's probably a big play, it gets us a first down and all we need is one more first down to seal the game," Brees said. "It's tough to lose on a play like that."

The Bucs' McCown, playing his first full game since 2004, experienced his own sense of disbelief at the turn of events. Moments earlier, he felt like the goat, having been sacked by Saints defensive end Will Smith for a safety.

And although he played remarkably well filling in for injured Jeff Garcia, McCown blamed himself for failing to communicate properly with wide receiver Joey Galloway against an all-out Saints blitz, resulting in an interception that cornerback Mike McKenzie ran 53 yards to give the Saints a 21-20 lead. Add the safety, and the Saints were up 23-20 with the ball.

"I was really hoping the defense would come up with a big play for us," McCown said. "At that time, that was really the only chance we had. They were dinking and dunking, getting first downs and really moving the ball. … I was hoping and praying our offensive game wouldn't end with a safety."

Playing it safe wasn't in Payton's mind when he called for the "Superdome Special."

And playing it safe wasn't in Gruden's mind when his Bucs faced a fourth-and-1 with two minutes left.

The opportunity to essentially seal the NFC South was on the line. Gruden toyed with the idea of going for the tying field goal, but his players campaigned for a more aggressive approach.

Gruden had concerns, though. After the previous play, center John Wade had gone to the locker room with cramps. Fullback B.J. Askew also was missing because of an injury. Gruden questioned the wisdom of going for a fourth down with a new center and a tight end as a fullback.

"I felt good about our fourth-down play selection, so I changed my mind and decided to go for it," Gruden said. "I looked at a lot of things, but there is not a lot of time to ponder. You've got a 47-yard field goal. You've got a chance to push it into overtime, or you have a chance to take advantage of the opportunity while we were there."

Unlike Payton, Gruden was aggressive and smart. Successful all day with running plays to the right behind pulling guard Arron Sears, Gruden called for a handoff to Earnest Graham, who followed his blocking and gained 2 yards for the first down. That result paid off with McCown's pass to Stevens.

"That was a big swing of emotions," Brees said. "When we got that safety, I think we all thought, 'OK, now we get two first downs and we win this game.' This is our chance. This is our opportunity. It is staring us right in the face, and then, when you don't, and you give up the ball right back to them with a chance to go down and tie the game, it reminded me of last year in the playoffs against Philadelphia. We kind of mishandled an exchange."

Payton will learn from this bad experience. In fact, if he studies the tape of how Gruden handled his aggressiveness with control, he'll be an even better play-caller for the future.

But that future probably will not include a playoff berth this season.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.