By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; D06
MIAMI GARDENS, FLA. -- A fourth-down attempt at the end of halftime had just backfired on New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton, yet walking into the locker room at halftime of Sunday's Super Bowl, he immediately let his team know his aggressive play-calling was not about to end.
In fact, it would continue on the opening kickoff of the second half of the Saints' 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts at Sun Life Stadium.
Payton and his coaching staff had noticed on film that the Colts' return team tended to take a step back on kickoffs, eager to get back to set up returns, players said. So all week, the Saints had practiced onside kicks. And despite the fact the Saints trailed, 10-6, Payton wanted to bring out the trickery as soon as stadium officials had cleared the field of the halftime show.
When the team arrived in the locker room at the end of the second quarter, Payton said, " 'Thirty minutes till we're world champions and defense, get ready,' " Saints linebacker Scott Fujita recalled. " 'We're going to surprise them with an onside kick.' "
Added Fujita, "Sean Payton could never be accused of being gun-shy."
The onside kick worked perfectly, and it reflected the offensive and defensive philosophy against the high-powered Colts that helped the Saints earn their first NFL title in the team's 43-year history. Payton said he wanted both to show faith in his players by being aggressive, while also striving to keep Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning off the field and under pressure.
"Our head coach is unbelievable. . . . He's an offensive guru who is an aggressive play-caller and a confident play-caller," said Drew Brees, who was named the game's most valuable player. "There is nobody I wanted to win this championship for more than for Sean Payton."
Said Fujita: "You got a lot of guys playing aggressively. . . . Sean Payton's the leader of the pack."
Payton, in his fourth season as head coach, also challenged what had been ruled an incompletion on a two-point conversion attempt late in the game, and won that, putting the Colts down seven instead of five. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, meantime, anticipated a slant call by Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning on a third-and-five play with just more than three minutes remaining.
Manning, in a hurry, was intercepted by cornerback Tracy Porter, who returned the ball 74 yards for the score that ended Indianapolis's hopes.
"It was great film study," Porter said.
Williams said his linebacking corps led by Jonathan Vilma had urged him to call for pressure on Manning after Manning had called a similar play on a previous third down.
"Tracy saw it all unfolding and he pulled the trigger and made a nice play," Williams said.
The onside kick, however, represented the game's turning point.
"You want to show your players you are confident," Payton said. "All week long, we really felt as the underdogs, we had the better team."
On the play, Saints kicker Thomas Morstead chunked the ball to his left. It bounced off a Colt and into the hands of linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who covered the ball at the New Orleans 42-yard line. Brees could not wait to take the field. He completed five passes in five attempts on a drive that ended with a 16-yard touchdown to Pierre Thomas, which gave the Saints their first lead, 13-10.
"That was a big momentum swing," Colts tight end Dallas Clark said. "I had a feeling they were going to try to something. They really weren't getting anything going offensively [in the first half], so I thought they had to get a spark somehow."
Indeed, the Colts' defense had stopped the Saints on four attempts from inside the 4 late in the second quarter. On fourth and goal from the 1, Payton elected to go for it instead of kicking a field goal, and Thomas was stopped for no gain by linebacker Gary Brackett.
Though the Saints still managed a 44-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley before the second quarter expired, the Colts' defensive stand seemed to make a big statement.
"We tried it on third down and didn't get it, and then on fourth down they did a heck of a job of hitting the holes," Thomas said. "They had a better push, but we never gave up. . . . We said, 'Okay, they got this one, but the game's not over.' "