While I'm not going to explore that topic right now, I am going to shine a light--and perhaps in future posts, as well--on moments that have defined Payton and burnished his legend.
Though Coach Payton won't be around this season, it's my opinion that it's important to keep him alive, if you will, in the public consciousness of Saints' fans as much as "telling stories" might allow.
I realize that might sound oddly sentimental or even unnecessarily morbid, but maintaining Payton's influence on the mindset of Saints' fans can, in some ways, provide both a sense of calm and an air confidence. Anyway, it can't hurt to pay a little tribute every now and then.
With that said, here's one of my favorite Sean Payton stories.
Circa December, 2007
In 2007 the Saints struggled early on, losing their first four games. In what would become among the defining traits of the Payton/Brees Saints, resilience and tenacity fueled a subsequent four-game winning streak and by week 13, the Saints were 5-6. While not exactly living up to the lofty expectations they established from a near-Super Bowl appearance in 2006, the team was still in the playoff hunt with five games to play.
Enter 7-4 Tampa Bay, NFC South division leaders, for a showdown in the SuperDome. A victory by the Saints would put the team within one game of the division leaders with four games remaining. It was the pivotal game of the season. With a win, another division title was within reach.
Fast forward to the second half, and Mike McKenzie has returned an INT for a TD giving the Saints a 21-20 lead. Then, with under four minutes left in the game, Will Smith sacks Luke McCown for a safety and gives the Saints a 3-point lead and possession of the ball.
The Dome is going patently berserk, as it is prone to so often do. You know what I'm talking about. The Saints now have the ball at midfield and appear poised to finish off the Bucs with just about three minutes left to play. That is until Sean Payton boldly, and probably unnecessarily, calls a reverse on 2nd-and-10. Saints' fans watch in horror as Reggie botches the exchange with Devery and loses the ball. A mad scramble ensues and the Bucs recover. A stunned crowd in the Dome sits in silence. A few short minutes later, the Bucs score a touchdown and win the game.
A truly deflating moment for the Saints. One that, for the most part, kills the team's postseason hopes and casts a cloud of doubt upon Sean Payton.
After the game Payton acknowledges the risk of the playcall, shifts the blame away from his players, and heaps the responsibility for the outcome upon himself. A ravenous, opportunistic media lambastes him relentlessly for days.
At the time, it's the nadir of the Payton era in New Orleans.
The next week, the Saints played the Falcons in Atlanta on Monday Night Football (the game after which Bobby Petrino quit on his team and bolted for Arkansas).
After forcing a quick three-and-out on the game's opening series, the Saints got the ball deep in their own territory at the nine-yard line. In front of a national TV audience, fresh off being skewered all week from every possible angle, what does Payton call on 1st down?
An end-around to Devery in the shadow of his own end zone that gains 15 yards. You were saying?
I still clearly remember bolting up and cheering a bit too loudly and inappropriately, like Gleason had just blocked another Falcons' punt or something. It was a glorious moment.
Any potential misgiving or inkling of skepticism I might have had about Sean Payton instantaneously evaporated. It fully and immediately restored my hope of Payton eventually leading the Saints to a Super Bowl. In an otherwise disappointing season, it was a stirring moment of affirmation burned into memory. Aside from "Ambush," it's my favorite Payton moment.
It underscored everything Payton stands for, even if at the time his personality and style were still developing in front of our eyes. Payton was still in the midst of branding himself as an unbowed, intrepid leader who was never afraid to fail, never scared to buck convention, never fearful of what the critics might say, and always oozing an extra-confident swagger every step along the way.
It was more than just a playcall. It was a statement, a reminder, a flag planted, a watershed.
It was ballsy, brazen, and a downright defiant "fuck you" to every one of his critics. This was his deal. Step aside, please.
That moment encapsulates Payton. It's that same mindset and philosophy that produced Super Bowl glory two seasons later.
And that mindset will be partly absent in 2012. No matter the outcome of this season, it's Payton's presence that will be sorely missed even if it's replicated in some form by others.
When you wonder if Payton will be the same guy when he comes back, just remember that at one time, one where he had reached a low point, Payton immediately rebounded forcefully and defiantly. Say what you will, but argue not with the means, nor with the ends.
As much as I'm excited for 2012, I can't help but to now look forward to what will happen when Payton walks back into the Dome in 2013, poised for redemption.
I imagine he'll be ready to come back as forcefully as ever.