Sports

Commentary: Saints coach risks disaster for win

Story continues below videoFrom The Miami Herald

SEAN PAYTON COACHES a football team that for decades personified the stubbornness of futility. He coaches in a city that in recent years has come to represent the struggle over adversity. That is what the leader of the New Orleans Saints carries with him, from training camp to Super Bowl XLIV. It is a burden he seems to handle easily.

Payton plays to win. It is an easy thing to say; the words flow naturally enough. It is a harder thing to do, though - harder and harder as the pages of the NFL calendar turn, and the games get bigger, and the regular season melts into the playoffs, and the playoffs finish in the Super Bowl.

Nobody calls an onside kick to start off the second half of the Super Bowl, trailing by four. Nobody. That it is a better-percentage play than you think - about a coin flip when you do it by surprise - does not matter. To call an onside kick in that situation is to risk disaster - and, worse, in today's world, it is to risk ridicule. There is a reason people go by the book - because, if it all blows up on you, you can shrug and say, "I went by the book."

Sean Payton? He called the onside kick Sunday night.

And it worked.

"We talked about it at halftime," Payton said. "It's a credit to everyone of these players here. ... They carried out the plan. I'm just proud of this team and this coaching staff. And everyone back in New Orleans gets a piece of this trophy. Here we go."

But it was the coach who ignited them. It was the onside kick that reinvigorated them. That moment forever will define Payton. Even if the Saints had ended up losing, it would have marked him with distinction.

Of course, there are two sides to moments like that. There is a winner, and there is a loser. With that, the goat is old pal Hank Baskett, the husband of Kendra from "The Girls Next Door" fame. The onside kick went to him, and the former Eagles wide receiver had it and then he didn't have it. What followed was the mother of all pileups. You might never have seen another scrum like it, right in front of the Saints' bench, about 10 players involved, and dozens of Saints players and coaches jumping all around, and several officials diving into the mess and trying to ascertain possession amid the maelstrom.

It took a long time. It was combat worthy of the game, and the moment. And in the end, when the Saints' Chris Reis was the one ruled to have recovered it, the enormous pro-Saints crowd filled the Super Bowl with a roar. Because Payton had filled his team with gumption.

Earlier, near the end of the first half, Payton had gone for it again. It was not nearly as unconventional as the onside kick, but it was another move that went against the book. On fourth-and-one, trailing by seven, Payton decided to go for it rather than take the easy field goal. He didn't get it, either, when running back Pierre Thomas was stopped by Colts linebacker Gary Brackett.

It turned out OK, though. When the Saints' defense held, they were able to drive for a field goal. They got to halftime at 10-6, and then Payton had a half-hour break, while The Who provided the entertainment, to try to figure out what to do.

Sean Payton? Who are you?

Someone who plays to win.

Try to think of a better legacy.

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