Sunday, February 7, 2010

Timely coaching decisions boost Saints to first Super Bowl

ON FOOTBALL

As I grabbed a refreshing beverage, popped open the Tostitos and salsa and found an open seat on the couch Sunday evening, I prepared my mental notebook for the seemingly inevitable. On American sports' biggest stage, which coach would make the faulty decisions, call the bad timeouts, try the wrong plays in the wrong situations?

In short, which coach would help cost his team a chance at the Lombardi Trophy. It happens every year — with enormous pressure on his shoulders, a coach isn't thinking clearly and hurts his team. Heck, sometimes both coaches enter the realm of boneheaded mistakes and cancel each other out.

But on Sunday, rather, Sean Payton made such smart decisions — such keen gambles — that he, along with field-goal kicker Garret Hartley, should have gotten a share of Drew Brees' MVP trophy. Payton didn't have any previous experience to prove he'd be on top of his game on football's biggest stage, and I did question a bit his decision to run the ball on a fourth-and-goal toward the end of the first half that was stuffed by the Colts.

From there, however, he was impeccable. 

On Indianapolis' next drive, with the Colts leading 10-3, Payton smartly didn't immediately use his timeouts, knowing that the other Peyton, that Manning guy, had the ball and could quickly turn a one-possession game into a bit of a hole leading into the locker room (not to mention a huge momentum shift). Instead, Payton let enough time off the clock to almost give the sense that the Saints were conceding the half, and then he called time after second and third down (a short-yardage situation that the Saints stifled) to give Brees just enough time to drive New Orleans into field-goal range. Smart coaching.

But not as genius as his first call of the third quarter. It's funny — as Jim Nantz was mentioning before the second-half kickoff Manning's lack of on-field time in the second quarter, I got a quick feeling that the Saints would try an onside kick. Sure, it would be a huge risk. A Colts recovery would almost certainly lead to points and a shift in the momentum. However, it was also the perfect time to execute it.

The teams had just come out of the locker room after a long halftime of The Who. Everyone was expecting a traditional kickoff and a return to normal football. So the kick caught the Colts off guard, and after a player in blue and white lunged at the ball and missed, a wild pileup occurred. And the Saints recovered. That, predictably, led to a touchdown and New Orleans' first lead of the game.

The Saints' offense got going by executing a flurry of short passes that allowed Brees to get rid of the pigskin before Dwight Freeny or any other Colt could eat him for dinner. Smart play-calling.

Manning, of course, answered with a touchdown drive of his own, and the Colts held a slim 17-16 lead into the middle of the fourth quarter. But by that point, Brees was in a zone and there was no stopping the Saints' attack. Until, it appeared, Lance Moore dropped a two-point conversion attempt that would have given New Orleans a seven-point advantage.

Except Payton saw differently. I originally blasted the coach from my comfy seat out of the spotlight, afraid he had burned one of his treasured timeouts in such a close game. But a closer look provided evidence that Moore had possession and was in the end zone before the ball was knocked loose. The refs agreed. The Saints won the challenge. Huge, gutsy call by Payton.

As it turned out, the conversion was a moot point in the 14-point victory. But it easily could have come into play. Manning looked destined to drive the Colts to a game-tying drive until his third-down pass landed squarely in the abdomen of famous-quarterbacks-killer Tracy Porter, who ran 74 yards with the ball for the game's final score.

Still, Manning drove Indy back down the field and appeared, again, on the verge of getting his team in the end zone and making things interesting — only to run out of downs. A touchdown on either of the possessions would have brought that conversion into play.

So what stood out to me about Super Bowl XLIV? 

How well-played it was. Brees was near perfect, completing 32 of 39 passes and not throwing an interception. The Saints didn't turn the ball over and committed just three penalties for 19 yards. That's incredible. Hartley set a Super Bowl record by connecting on three field goals of 40-plus yards (44, 46, 47). Amazing.

On the other side, the Colts played extremely well, too — except for a few I'll-be-thinking-obsessively-about-that-play-for-at-least-the-next-164-days happenings. Manning was a very solid 31-of-45 for 333 yards and a touchdown ... not including the interception. They didn't turn the ball over — besides you know what — and had just five penalties. Jim Caldwell was rock-solid in his Super Bowl debut.

But the game came down to a couple huge plays, the accurate leg of a young kicker coming off the greatest moment of his life a fortnight prior, and risky but smart coaching by a man who will no doubt be locked up as a head coach for a long time to come.

And citizens of a city nearly destroyed four-plus years ago can now celebrate for the foreseeable future, knowing that their football team is run and led by a coach and players who when given the biggest stage, are at their best.

Lucky for the billions watching Sunday night, we were all witnesses to the flawless execution.

And not surprisingly, Saints players punctuated the night with a perfect Gatorade drenching of their so-deserving leader as the game clock neared 0:00.

2 comments:

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