The miracle worker: Payton shocking NFL
The first-year head coach has New Orleans one game from the Super Bowl.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Sean Payton barely cracked a smile as he incited bursts of laughter around him.
The subject was the New Orleans Saints' lack of playoff experience, and how they overcame that to beat Philadelphia in an NFC second-round playoff game last Saturday night.
Payton mentioned rookie guard Jahri Evans, who was drafted out of Bloomsburg, a Division II college, last spring.
"It was probably his best game of the year," Payton said of Evans' blocking against the Eagles. "So his postseason experience against East Stroudsburg was pretty good."
Payton exudes the air of an all-business, disciplinarian, but he had to have a sense of humor to think he could stay sane as a rookie head coach in New Orleans.
When he took the job, the Saints were a mess, and because of Hurricane Katrina, so was their home city.
If there was anything attractive about starting one's head coaching career here, it was that the Saints had nowhere to go but up. Still, few could have envisioned Payton taking this franchise to never-before-seen heights in his first season; their game in Chicago on Sunday marks their first appearance in an NFC title game since the franchise's inception in 1967.
The Saints had gone 3-13 in 2005 and prognosticators universally picked them to finish at the bottom of the NFC South Division, even after they lucked out and got Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush in the draft.
There was still uncertainty about the health of new quarterback Drew Brees and running back Deuce McAllister, both coming off of major reconstructive surgeries in the offseason. There were questions about whether either could operate effectively behind a relatively inexperienced offensive line comprised of guys like Evans and Jon Stinchcomb, who had never started. And the best solution the Saints could come up with to address their trouble stopping the run was a new linebacker corps of role players in Mark Simoneau, Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita, who weren't getting the opportunities they wanted with their old teams.
Even Payton, who replaced half the roster, had little idea of how good the Saints could be as they went into their season opener.
"For me as a first-year head coach coming out of training camp, you're just anxious to start the schedule to see how you stack up," Payton said. "You really don't know."
Payton did have an advantage in promoting hard work, attention to detail and a team concept. He could point to the fans -- people looking for a symbol of hope and renewal as they struggled to rebuild their lives and their city.
"It is unique and different than the normal opportunity as an NFL head coach," Payton said. "It's something that you find a little bit more fulfilling than I have in my career at any time as a coach, because you know how important it is. The NFL has great fans throughout this league in the various cities where the teams are located, but this situation here is different. I don't know how else to describe it."
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