I know the fashionable thing to do this week is to rag on coach Payton for all of the Saints woes and for the most part its valid. The bad news is you shouldn't expect Payton to be going anywhere soon. The ink is still drying on his contract extension so buckle up. But I would like to share a story with you in the hopes that it might brighten your day and give you a little bit of hope with regards to the future of the Saints franchise. I am such an optimist.
Ya see, a long time ago - 2006 I believe - the Saints battled it out on a cold and windy Christmas eve day in New Jersey against the Giants. I was there. Things were different way back then, thats for sure. The Saints were 9-5, first place in their division and one win away from clinching a first round bye. Like I said, it was a long time ago. The Giants on the other hand had started off strong at 6-2 but continued to slip and now stood at 7-7 fighting for their playoff lives.
Though only separated by two wins, these teams could not have been more different. The Giants were a team in turmoil. Drama surrounded Tiki Barber's retirement. Eli Manning was still an unproven quarterback. As such, the Giants played pitifully. They couldn't convert third downs. They dropped a lot of balls. They took a lot of stupid penalties. They looked like a beaten down team that had already given up. Their head coach Tom Coughlin had lost all control of the locker room and fans were growing angrier.
Q: You mentioned Giants fans – They were pretty rough on the team and rough on you today. Do you have any reaction to that?
A: I don’t. There’s frustration. There’s frustration on everybody’s part. Everybody comes to the stadium wanting to win and really excited about the opportunity to win, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s frustrating. It’s been that way. I don’t like it. I understand it, I don’t like it, but that’s the nature of our business.
Q: Did you hear the fans chanting to have you fired?
A: No. I didn’t pay any attention.
Q: Are you concerned about your job security?
A: I’m concerned about this next game.
-Tom Coughlin Post-game Transcript (12/24/06)
On the other side of the field were the Cinderella Saints playing for an entire city in the wake of Katrina. They were exceeding expectations, hit the draft jackpot by landing Reggie Bush and Marques Colston and were getting all the lucky bounces. Even on the road in the extreme cold and wind, the Saints managed to put together sixty great minutes of football against NY. Their defense didn't allow the Giants to run an offensive play past the 50-yard line. With the wind affecting the pass and catch game they relied on their new star back Reggie Bush for 126 yards and a touchdown. The Saints were being led by Sean Payton, later to be named the NFL's Coach of the Year, and he could do no wrong.
But things didn't continue as one would have expected. Tom Coughlin was never fired. He was given one more year and one more chance to turn the Giants into a winner. They are now 11-1 following a Superbowl championship year, Eli is solid as a rock and the fans are loving their team. The clouds have parted and the sun shines bright. As for Sean Payton, his team has hovered around .500 for two years, he can't put together a 4th quarter comeback, Reggie has never had a 100-yard game since then and fans are becoming increasingly angry with his decision making. The clouds are growing darker. So let this be a lesson...
Wait a minute. What was the point of this story because this doesn't end too well for the Saints?
The point is that maybe there is something to be learned from Tom Coughlin's example. He gives Saints fans hope that a coach can turn his team and a fan base around even when things look bleak and everyone is against you. Rejoice, for it is possible and it has been done before. Hopefully Payton can use Coughlin as a role model and find inspiration. Maybe hang some pictures of the Giants coach around his office and some of those framed motivational posters. You know the ones, they say like "Teamwork" with a picture of a flock of birds flying together at dusk. Truth is, if we expect the Saints to start winning like we all want them to then Payton's path will have to very closely resemble that of Coughlin's and it's never too early to start. Might I recommend Coughlin's book, A Team to Believe In? But you don't have to take my word for it.