How Sean Payton's daring play-calling won the New Orleans Saints their first Super Bowl.

The stadium scene.
Feb. 8 2010 4:02 AM

Big, Not Easy

How Sean Payton's daring play-calling won the New Orleans Saints their first Super Bowl.

Also in Slate: Seth Stevenson reviews the best and worst Super Bowl ads. Remember what the game is all about with this Magnum Photos gallery on football. 

Head Coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints
Head Coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints

For the last four years, fans on the message board SaintsReport.com have been adding to a thread called "Write the Times-Picayune's Headline for the Day After the Saints Win the Super Bowl." The 13 pages of suggestions that piled up between 2006 and the opening kickoff of Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV—"Convoy of Snow Plows arrives in Hell!"; "Holy *Bleep*!!!"; "We Won! We Actually Won!!!"; and "New Orleans Runs Out of Liquor," to name a few—reveal that, even for the most-optimistic Saints fans, this day was unimaginable. When it actually happened—holy bleep, the Saints really, seriously won the Super Bowl 31-17 over the Indianapolis Colts —the Times-Picayune's real-life headline writers shrugged and admitted defeat. On the field, Saints coach Sean Payton held up a paper that said "World Champs." The paper delivered to subscribers this morning said, simply, "Amen!" Yeah, there really are no words.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

If New Orleanians couldn't picture their team winning the Lombardi Trophy, the Saints played like a team that didn't show up to lose. Head coach Sean Payton's Super Bowl philosophy, it appeared, was that it was better to look foolish than to act timid. Down seven at the end of the second quarter, Payton chose to go for a touchdown on fourth and goal rather than kick an easy field goal. The Saints got stuffed. The coach's response: an onside kick to start the second half, the first in Super Bowl history before the fourth quarter. Win or lose—or lose whiletaking huge risks that could make you look totally ridiculous—Payton had decided the Saints would be aggressors. After an unholy midfield scrum, New Orleans recovered that onside kick and drove for a score to take the lead. "I wasn't worried," Saints kicker Thomas Morstead said after the game about the surprise onside try, which he executed flawlessly. "I was terrified."

The Saints had good reason to be terrified of Peyton Manning. A narrow victory over Brett Favre and the Vikings in the NFC championship game revealed that the Saints' defense struggles to stop a good quarterback without a silly amount of fumbles and interceptions. In the Super Bowl, New Orleans showed there's one other way for a not-so-great defense to stop a great quarterback: Don't let him take the field. Thanks to some time-killing second-quarter drives and Morstead's onside kick, the Saints kept the Colts star and New Orleans native on the bench for a shockingly long stretch in the middle of the game.

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When he did get a chance to fling the ball around, Manning showed the Saints were right to play keep-away. The Colts' QB repeatedly evaded the New Orleans blitz—no "remember me shots" in this game, despite defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' promise—and zipped passes to tight end Dallas Clark. Struggling to stop the pass, the Saints' defense also couldn't get a hand on running back Joseph Addai. All that kept the Colts from running up the score in the first half was a third-down drop by a wide open Pierre Garçon.

And then, after holding the Saints on fourth and goal with less than two minutes to go, the Colts stopped themselves. Rather than let Manning try to throw the team into field goal range, Indy strangely complied with the Saints' plan to keep the NFL's most valuable player on the sidelines. After three faint-hearted running plays, the Saints had the ball back with enough time to cut their halftime deficit to 10-6 on a 44-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley.

Nonetheless, New Orleans' second half comeback wasn't solely the product of momentum or an audacious onside kick. The Saints won for the reason they usually win: Drew Brees' scary accuracy. After the 2008 season, a show called Sport Science asked Brees to throw a football at an archery target 10 times; he hit the bull's-eye on all 10 throws. The Saints' quarterback doesn't do much worse with huge defensive linemen trying to kill him. Brees set an NFL record this season by completing 70.6 percent of his passes. He did even better on Sunday night, completing more than 82 percent of his throws. The final stats for the deserving Super Bowl MVP: 32-39 for 288 yards and two touchdowns.

Brees moved his team against a Colts defense that tackled surely and didn't allow any big plays. All year long, the Saints piled up points with long passes. In the Super Bowl, they had just two offensive plays longer than 20 yards. In today's NFL, though, there's no way to keep a good passing game down without a dominant pass rush. By the second half, Indy's star defensive end, Dwight Freeney, was hobbling around on his busted ankle, and Brees had time to thread the ball to Pierre Thomas for 12 yards, Devery Henderson for nine, and Marques Colston for eight. Every ball was on somebody's fingertips, and the Saints receivers didn't drop anything after Colston let a ball bounce off his face in the first quarter.