NEW ORLEANS -- In a game of 140 plays or so Sunday, one play told me that New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton is back.
I mean REALLY back.
It came nearly 10 minutes into their season opener against the Atlanta Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Trailing 7-0, the Saints faced a fourth-and-1 at their 47. Instead of playing it safe and punting the ball away with foot specialist Thomas Morstead, Payton rolled the dice and sent in his short-yardage package.
The Falcons guessed right, collapsed the right side of the Saints offensive line and stuffed running back Mark Ingram for a 1-yard loss.
Falcons ball at the Saints 45.
Seven plays later, Matt Bryant booted a 23-yard field goal to increase the Falcons lead to 10-0 with 1:28 remaining in the first quarter.
At the time, I hated the play call with Ingram but liked the decision to go for it, even if the Falcons had scored a touchdown on a short field and taken a 14-0 lead. But the defense stiffened when Atlanta reached the 7-yard line and held the visitors to a field goal, a precursor of things to come.
For my money, I'd rather see quarterback Drew Brees play a bigger role in determining the outcome of that play, instead of merely turning and handing the ball to Ingram. I'd also rather have Pierre Thomas or Darren Sproles on the field in that situation because of their ability to make defenders miss, especially when the play doesn't get blocked up correctly.
That said, I like Payton's decision even better today in light of the Saints' 23-17 victory, in light of how they clinched it with a stellar goal line stand from first-and-goal at the New Orleans 7 in the final minute, with a deflection from rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and a pick in the end zone by veteran safety Roman Harper.
By going for it on fourth-and-the-length-of-the-football, on their side of the field, Payton showed confidence in both his offense and his defense.
Without saying a word, he told his team:
I believe we can make this first down.
And if we don't, I believe we can keep the Falcons out of the end zone and perhaps off the scoreboard.
Whatever happens, I believe in you guys and we will endure!
Afterward, Payton explained how he arrived at his decision. "You think about the players you have, the distance ... but it's just your gut you go with,'' he said.
Few NFL head coaches have as good a feel for the game as Payton. So when he decides to go with his gut, the chances are pretty good his hunch will pay off.
Exhibit A: "Ambush'' in Super Bowl XLIV.
This is not a knock against Aaron Kromer or Joe Vitt, the men who were called upon to serve as interim head coaches during Payton's season-long suspension in 2012. They are both top-shelf 'ball coaches with excellent credentials.
But there is only one Sean Payton, no ifs, ands or guts about it.
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