Sean Payton: AP NFL Coach of the Year
NEW ORLEANS -- As Sean Payton settled into his first head coaching job with a reeling New Orleans Saints franchise, he remained mindful of a couple key pointers from his former boss, Bill Parcells.
"His advice was to find out -- quickly -- what's kept this team from winning, if you can, and then make the appropriate changes," Payton recalled. "He also emphasized the importance of finding the right quarterback."
Check, and check.
In Payton's first season in New Orleans, the Saints (10-6) improved their victory total by seven en route to securing the second seed in the NFC playoffs. And when the rebuilt Louisiana Superdome plays host to a second-round NFL playoff game for the first time ever Saturday night, the Saints' offense will be led on the field by a quarterback in Drew Brees who led the league in passing yardage.
Viewing the Saints fast and triumphant turnaround in the context of how their success held the potential to revitalize the spirit of a city rebuilding from a natural disaster, it was hardly a surprise Payton was selected as The Associated Press Coach of the Year.
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.
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.
The new coach of the Saints was going to be faced with the unique challenge of rebuilding a roster while his community was recovering from devastation. Yet, Payton embraced that, understanding how uplifting the Saints' 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.
"I'm excited we can provide a little juice for these people during the course of the week, get them excited about football -- and certainly excited about the postseason now," Payton said. "Those things all make it very worthwhile. It's pretty powerful right now and it's a little unique to maybe any other job."
Upon his arrival, Payton scoured film of the 2005 season and found a team that lost more because of undisciplined, mistake-prone play than a lack of talent.
Leadership was a key component Payton wanted to address, and he started by bringing in Brees, seen at the time as a risk because the quarterback was rehabbing from complicated offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder.
But Payton trusted Brees when the quarterback promised to work tirelessly to come back stronger than before. Brees has silenced the doubters, throwing for 4,418 yards and 26 touchdowns, good enough to start for the NFC in the Pro Bowl.
"We wanted to make sure we were looking for players that were tough, had good character, that wanted to win and be a part of the team," Payton said. "All of those things we thought were very important, along with talent."
By the time training camp was over, nearly half the roster had changed and several rookies had become key starters.
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. Then there was seventh-round pick Marques Colston, who became an elite rookie with more than 1,000 yards receiving and eight TDs.
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.
"You can just tell that he's had a plan about when he became a head coach how he was going to create this winning attitude and winning atmosphere around the clubhouse and that's what he's done," Brees said. "He's brought in a lot of good people. Good players that are great people, and I think that that's really what it's all about when you talk about coming together as a team."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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