<
>

Payton revives city, Saints on way to Coach of the Year

Sean Payton might have had the toughest coaching job in football
this season, making his selection Saturday as The Associated Press
NFL Coach of the Year that much more impressive.

Payton, in his first year as a head coach, didn't just lead the
New Orleans Saints to a 10-6 record, the NFC South championship and
a first-round playoff bye. He helped revitalize a battered city's
spirit.

With New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in late August
2005, the Saints became nomads that year, winding up 3-13 under Jim
Haslett. Payton, an assistant coach in Dallas, was hired to revive
one of the NFL's historically unsuccessful franchises.

Payton and his team gave the city -- indeed, the entire Gulf
Coast -- something it desperately needed: a reason to smile.

And hopes for the Saints' first Super Bowl appearance.

"It's just been the right mix of guys who believe in each
other," said Payton, who ran away in the balloting by a nationwide
panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL.
"Players putting the team ahead of everything else. I think that's
the biggest thing that we've been able to do to date. That's what's
most important. That's what we were looking for in the offseason:
character, toughness, those are things you win with."

Payton received 44 votes in a season when there were a
half-dozen outstanding coaching performances. Eric Mangini of the
New York Jets, another first-year head coach, got three votes,
while San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer, the 2004 winner, received
two. Jeff Fisher of Tennessee got one.

"I'm honored and somewhat humbled. This is a time in our league
right now where there are probably seven or eight Hall of Fame
coaches currently coaching in our league," Payton said Saturday
after learning of the award. "I still have tags hanging out of my
Reebok gear on the sidelines."

Payton became the third Saints coach to win the award, joining
Haslett (2000) and Jim Mora (1987). Last year's winner was
Chicago's Lovie Smith.


No coach ever was faced with rebuilding a roster while his
community was recovering from such devastation. Football might seem
trivial under such circumstances, but Payton and his players
understood how uplifting their success could be to those struggling
to put together their lives again.

"You have to trust your gut a lot and follow your heart,"
Payton said. "There certainly were going to be some challenges
coming into this region at this time. But I think the city is very
committed to this team and it's really an amazing fan base we have,
not just in New Orleans, but in this whole Gulf South area. And I'm
excited we can provide a little juice for these people during the
course of the week, get them excited about football."

Payton began with a tough training camp of two-a-day practices
in the heat of Jackson, Miss. Many players called it one of the
most demanding camps.

"It was a new coach. He wanted to put his foot on the ground
and establish that this was a new beginning," veteran wide
receiver Joe Horn said. "In our profession, football, you don't
start a new beginning by coming in and making it easy. It has to be
hard.

"Fortunately for us we won football games. It worked out
well."

So well that the Saints had their best regular season thanks to
a potent offense and strong special teams.

Give Payton credit for those units, too. He signed free agent
quarterback Drew Brees even though Brees was coming off delicate
surgery on his throwing shoulder. Brees responded with a Pro Bowl
season.

Payton lucked out when Reggie Bush was bypassed at the top of
the draft by Houston, and Bush was a dynamic rookie as a runner,
receiver and punt returner.

Even more dynamic was seventh-round pick Marques Colston, a
receiver from Hofstra who had a questionable work ethic and
concentration lapses in college. Under Payton's guidance, Colston
became an elite rookie.

Payton wisely alternated running back Deuce McAllister, coming
off a serious knee injury, with Bush, and McAllister finished with
1,057 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.

"We have a great head coach in Sean Payton, and his system,"
Brees said. "I think we all believe in it, and I think it suits
us all very well. I think we take a lot of pride in it."