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Bold moves pay off for Super Saints

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Neil Reynolds | 18:31 UK time, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

It was fitting that such an entertaining NFL season should conclude with a thrilling Super Bowl. The spoils went to New Orleans, the team that adopted the more aggressive, care-free approach, against Indianapolis in Miami.

Super Bowl 44 showed that the NFL is not just about spectacular skill and ferocious hitting - the sport can also be about aggressive coaching and clever scheming.

New Orleans took some chances and while not all of their gambles paid off, the aggressive moves made by head coach Sean Payton did inspire his troops. Saints players knew their coach was going to give them every possible chance to win the biggest game of their lives.

tp_getty595.jpgTracy Porter returns an interception from Colts quarterback Peyton Manning 74 yards to seal victory

Payton first rolled the dice as half-time approached, on fourth and goal from the Colts' one-yard line. It was certainly a bold move given that the Saints were only down 10-3 at the time.

The ensuing run failed but it was a case of no harm done as the defence held firm and New Orleans got the ball back with a few seconds remaining on the clock, moving into field goal range and getting the three they should have got the first time around.

While the Saints were taking chances, that Garrett Hartley field goal before the break came about because the Colts adopted such a conservative approach in the final minute of the first half.

Facing a third-and-one at their own 10-yard line, the Colts ignored the game's greatest quarterback in Peyton Manning - a man who excels at throwing on third down - and had him hand off to the unheralded Mike Hart, who ran for no gain behind what is generally considered an offensive line not built for power.

Now, I'm not suggesting that Manning should have forced a pass into double coverage so close to his own end zone, but surely the Colts had a play up their sleeves that could pick up a single yard through the air?

The gutsiest call of the night came at the start of the second half. But first, a little background. Super Bowl half-times stretch for around 30 minutes, instead of the usual 12 of the regular season. So when Payton approached Saints kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead and told him the second half would start with an onside kick, you could forgive the rookie for getting a bit nervous.

While The Who went through their set out on the field, Morstead sweated through the ensuing 25 minutes. He had never attempted an onside kick in his life and was now going to do it for the first time in front of the 153 million television viewers in the US, who made this Super Bowl the most-watched programme of all-time.

Morstead, who is prone to an attack of nerves at the best of times, played the kick in his head time and again, admitting: "I wasn't worried. I was terrified. He dropped it on me near the start of half-time, not near the end, and it's such a long half-time."

Payton was not about to be put off by the fact his young kicker - who had not even attempted an onside kick in practice until 12 days before the game - was feeling a bit jittery. And he certainly wasn't worried that his team only trailed 10-6 and - if his bold move backfired - he could have handed the ball to Manning on the Saints' 40-yard line.

But the best kind of onside kick is an unexpected onside kick. And there is no way the Colts could have expected Morstead to send the ball squibbing towards the sidelines. Hank Baskett was certainly not prepared and the pigskin bounced straight off his chest.

Despite the desperate screams of "blue ball" Chris Reis recovered for the Saints at the conclusion of a 90-second scrum that probably involved a great deal of twisting and pulling of body parts.

db_ap595.jpgNew Orleans quarterback Drew Brees was named as the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player

Brees took full advantage as he put the Saints in front for the first time on the night by firing a 16-yard touchdown strike to Pierre Thomas. It was an impressive comeback. The Saints found themselves 10-0 down and reeling by the end of the first period but they never blinked. They had total faith in their ability to come back and Payton helped them with his bold approach.

Like the rest of his team, Brees made a slow start to the Super Bowl, hitting on just three of his first seven passes for 27 yards. But he showed once again that he is a great rhythm quarterback who boasts first-class accuracy. He may not have the strongest arm in the NFL, but he certainly knows how to put the ball on the money.

In the final 45 minutes, Brees completed 29 of 32 passes. And I should point out that one of his incompletions was a spike to stop the clock near the end of the first half and another was a perfectly-placed pass into the hands of Reggie Bush that ended up on the ground.

In a game where we knew quarterbacks would have a huge role to play, Brees grabbed the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player prize by completing 32 of 39 throws for 288 yards and two touchdowns.

Manning was good - and occasionally brilliant - for much of the night but was undone when driving for a game-tying touchdown. His third-down pass intended for Reggie Wayne was intercepted by Tracy Porter and taken 74 yards to the end zone for the game-deciding score.

It was another example of aggressive play-calling by the Saints. They had spent much of the evening playing rather cautiously on defence, but with the Colts threatening to tie it up, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams rolled the dice and sent several extra defenders after Manning on that third down play.

With additional pressure coming from all angles, Manning did not get the ball out to Wayne (who also did not run a very good pattern) and Porter read the play perfectly, using his brain to get into a good position before taking advantage of his outstanding athletic skills to race the length of the field.

Cue the wild celebrations in New Orleans and I don't think anyone can begrudge the Saints fans of their moment in the sun. It was a thrilling end to a magnificent season.

On a personal level, it has been a real thrill to be involved in the BBC radio and online coverage this season. And I would like to thank everyone for taking the time to read - and respond regularly to - this blog. Your feedback is always greatly appreciated and here's hoping we can do it all again in 2010.

And now the long off-season begins...I'm depressed already!


  • Comment number 1.

    It was so heartening to see a coach make the brave calls that he did during the biggest game of his life. It is a pity that international rugby coaches do not folllow suit; if they did we may have less kicking and a more enjoyable game.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great as always Neil.I agree with you,that the onside kick changed the game.If the Colts had gathered it,do you think that would have changed anything?

  • Comment number 3.

    What I find amazing is that if Payton had taken the safe choices, kicked the FG before the half and kicked off to the Colts returners, then the score could have been 24-6, or at least 20-6. Given that the result of those 2 calls was the Saints leading 13-10 that gives you some idea of the situation.

    I think the cleverness of going for the TD just before the half has been underestimated so far. Given that they had failed to convert a goal line position to a TD the would have been going into half time on the back of failing to convert a great opportunity. As it was, they went in on the back of stopping the Colts offense and kicking a 40+ yard field goal. Big momentum change caused by a coaching call. Also it meant that the chances of stopping the Colts defense was a lot bigger, given that they got the ball on the one yard line, rather than from a kick off return.

    The onside kick really will live in Superbowl lore forever. Given the riskiness of the playcall at that time, given that Manning could have been given the ball around the 40 yard line, the execution of it was great.

    But even then the Colts had there chances after. They had possession leading 17-13, even a field goal would have put the Saints in trouble, but Stover missed the long effort. The Saints were just up for it a lot more in the Second half I think. Overall I think that Payton got a lot more out of his players than Caldwell and Peyton did out of theirs.

    It was a game devoid of the dramatic endings of the last 2 games, but it was a great game all the same. Best quality Superbowl I have ever seen.

  • Comment number 4.

    nice article must say i was shocked that the saints went for the onside kick. but fair play to Payton for going all out and i agree the colts annoyed me that they just didnt trust manning to throw the ball, hell thats how they did so well in the league and its also the reason they beat the jets after a bad start.

  • Comment number 5.

    The Saints, despite having such a great regular season record, really had to work out some of those games and had a number of last possession wins. I think that Payton has been taking risks and pushing the envelope all season. What was really impressive, though was Drew Brees execution particularly in the second half. He has a tendency to get out of the pocket and take risks throwing when under pressure, and he didn't do that at all on Sunday. I reckon the big risks that his coach had taken, helped to take the pressure off Brees. The onside kick was of course the turning point. That ball was in the hands of the Colts for a moment, and to be honest the replays weren't all that conclusive that it was a Saint who had it, but the referees on the field were closest.
    I had the Colts beating the over, but the Saints just took that game right out of Manning's hands. Shame about Roger Daltry- what was he wearing?

  • Comment number 6.

    What a game! Although I am a saints fan, I have to say that it was a privilege to watch Manning and Brees match each other step for step playing at the highest level on the biggest stage for 3.5 quarters until the Porter interception. As a sports fan this is the kind of match you dream of. I imagine this is what it must have been to watch Ali/Frazier, Lillee/Botham or Brazil/Holland in the 70s. Genius!

  • Comment number 7.

    I thought the game was won because the Saints were willing to risk more for victory. Their tactics were aggressive but in a controlled manner. In contrast the Colts were a touch too conservative most notably when they gained the ball at their two yard line towards the end of the first half. By failing to see out the half they emboldened Sean Payton. Instead of spending half time down 10-3 & second guessing the decision to go for the touchdown, the Saints were shown that aggressive plays would be rewarded. Having said that it still took a lot of nerve in making the call for the onside kick & the blitz late in the game.

    Well done to the Saints & I definitely think they can challenge for the biggest prizes for the next few years.

    Underneath the Stars

  • Comment number 8.

    "Saints kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead...He had never attempted an onside kick in his life....rookie...who had not even attempted an onside kick in practice until 12 days before the game..."

    How does this make him a kickoff specialist? What's hard about booting it as hard as you can downfield? A 'specialist' would be someone who's kicked for years and done plenty of onside kicks in pressure situations. On the evidence above I fail to see how Morstead could be deemed a 'specialist'.

    "153 million television viewers in the US" all the reports (including one on the bbc site) says 106.5m?

    Other than these errors, been very enjoyable read throughout the season, great that BBC taking the sport more seriously. Great tv coverage on BBC too. The Sky experts knowledge is zero when Nick is not in the studio but at least Kevin is not smug or speaks with a put on 'tv voice' like the idiot on Ch5.

  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks for posts through this season, been a lot of fun to shoot our mouths off on the NFL.

    I will however shamelessly point out that in your previous two posts, I was out in front saying the Saints would win. Because the size advantage of their receivers and Brees' quick release options would keep their offense rolling... admittedly they only fell into this rhythm properly in the second half, but they did. And I predicted their defense would generally be dropping back into coverage to prevent Manning from completing big plays, and with that disrupt the Colts' momentum. And they'd have their moments on defense... in fact they really had one huge moment, but that from running a blitz from the defensive package that they'd had dropping back into coverage up to that point, a great call by Gregg Williams.

    A lot of people have commented that the Saints coaches won this through their gutsy calls and tactical adjustments - I only partly agree, the key difference is really that the Saints have more variety, on both sides of the ball. The Colts variety on offense is through Manning's ability to hit different receivers - that he does this so efficiently is because he reads defenses as well as any QB in history - but they are fundamentally a passing team with a QB operating from the pocket. They don't have the full attacking armoury, and a team like the Saints whose strength is their secondary (almost inevitably with linebackers like Vilma and Fujita who are very good in pass coverage) were always going to make life more difficult for Manning than people anticipated.

    The Colts defense never gets enough credit, but they are basically a super quick unit that prioritises stopping plays from developing. Which is fine until the other side schemes on gaining five yards at a time. Brees, at 9 yards per pass, executed perfectly with receivers absolutely tailor-made to keep the chains moving. You try the odd deep throw to keep the secondary honest, but having Colston, Henderson and Pierre Thomas picking up 5-6 yards at a time underneath, job done.

    Ps. Garrett Hartley. Huge. How did the Saints know he had it in him to produce all those clutch kicks... Nate Kaeding and Shane Graham and various others who clammed up in the play-offs, can't imagine what went through their minds watching Hartley's exhibition.

  • Comment number 10.

    ConradEdkins... Allow me to defend myself!

    Morstead is indeed a kickoff specialist, even though he is a rookie. The reason he is a specialist is because all he does is kick off - Garrett Hartley handles all field goals and extra points. Although he had never attempted an onside kick prior to the Super Bowl, his role is technically still that of a specialist, in the same way British kicker Rhys Lloyd is a kickoff specialist with the Carolina Panthers.

    As for the audience figures... the average US audience for Super Bowl was indeed 106.5 million. But a total of 153.4 million watched all or part of the Super Bowl. I know this to be true because I received a press release to that effect from the NFL HQ in New York.

    I may be guilty of going for the higher, more positive figure, but it was not an incorrect one. It was an officially reported figure.

  • Comment number 11.

    #9 Good call re Hartley, I would say he should have been no.2 in the MVP voting list. Keeping the scoreboard ticking over under immense pressure is enough as it is, let alone the distances he was slotting them over from.

  • Comment number 12.

    Thanks for the response Neil, much appreciated.

    Surely there is a difference between 'specialising' in kicking off and being a 'specialist' in that position. Yes all he does is kick off, however I would say a 'specialist' is experienced/expert at all forms of his job not just hoofing it downfield. Therefore I'd still say he's not a specialist ;)

    TV audience - that makes sense but maybe not very clear in your article.

    Again, congrats on a very informative blog throughout the season, shame the off season is so long, see you in 7 months!

  • Comment number 13.

    Conradedkins (post #8)

    A kickoff specialist is someone who is on the roster specifically for that purpose – to kick off. They don’t punt, they don’t kick field goals; generally they have a big range but poor accuracy, so aren’t relied on to kick points. Combined with an accurate field goal kicker, you can have one person knocking in touchbacks with the other kicking the points. That is what a kickoff specialist is. One who has a lot of experience is an experienced kickoff specialist. Morstead is an inexperienced kickoff specialist.
    As for his practicing/experience of onside kicks, it seems he has not been in a position where he’s been asked to do it in a game before. I think the writer though has cleverly worded his paragraph on that subject to slightly exaggerate the situation. Trust me, Morstead will have only spent a fraction of his practice time on onside kicks, but it’s still going to rack up into hours and hours of practice on that single type of kick. 3 hours a day since early August is a lot of time to practice when all you do is kick off.

    As to the main piece, I don’t agree that the Colts took the ball from Manning’s hand. The Colts on every down call either two or three plays into Manning, and he has the choice of what to run based on what he sees the defence do. He must have felt that his team could gain the single yard they needed. It would be highly risky to throw the ball on your own goalline in that situation. Think of the pros/cons. There’s hardly any time left and you’re inside your own 10, the pro is that if you pass then you might get the first down and get to halftime in possession. The cons are all types of turnover deep in your own red zone. Or just an incompletion, which gives the same result that happened but takes even less time off the clock. A run there was the right call – even someone who likes to take risks would have to admit that the risk analysis there is heavily pointing to running the ball. It was the Colts D which let them down, not the 3rd down playcall.

    Payton’s 4th down call was clever in that it gave the opposition the ball on their own goalline. Even missing out on the TD, the way things panned out meant that the Saints had momentum at the half. But giving up 3pts in the first half of a game is extremely risky. What if the Saints had not gotten back into field goal position? Then they’d be going into the half at 10-3 and having left points on the board. No momentum at halftime. At the risk of going 2 TDs down at the start of the 2nd half, I don’t believe Payton would have gone for the onside kick had there been a 7+ point differential at the half. When he went for it, the risk was that the score would become 17-6, which is still a TD & Fg difference. Had the score been 10-3 at HT, he was risking 17-3, which is not a good place to be in a Super Bowl. I don’t believe that when making the 4th down call he was predicting 2 drives in advance that he’d get the field goal anyway – rather he was lucky that the timing of the plays allowed enough time for the Saints to get into field goal range and gain that momentum and score.
    That particular drive as it happens is where, for me, coaching let the Colts down as they sat back and essentially allowed the Saints to gain the yards; scared of giving up a really big play, they actually allowed the Saints to set up their own big play at the start of the half.

    I feel ‘same Eddie George’ is right in that the Colts lack of variety eventually let them down. Manning runs the same plays numerous times in games, sometimes changing 1 receiver’s route, but generally he will find different receivers throughout the game despite running the same play, as defenses try to adjust. The Saints pattern-read, meaning that by the 4th quarter their DBs were beginning to recognise the receiver route combinations in front of them. When you apply pressure to the QB, it narrows his throwing choices – he can’t wait for the route which takes 5 seconds if he’s going to get hit in 3 seconds – so the Saints would have known that Manning was highly likely to throw to the route being run by Wayne. He didn’t make a sharp cut, the DB knew from his reads up to that point in the game that this was an opportunity to jump the route, and that was that. Ever so gradually, the Saints put the Colts into a position they wanted them, rather than the other way around which is what the Colts usually do to teams.

  • Comment number 14.

    ConradEdkins... I get where you're coming from re Morstead. I was surprised to learn that he had not practised any onside kicks before Super Bowl week.

    Now he has one under his belt does that make him a specialist? :-)

    As for the television audience, my public relations background came out there and I automatically went for the higher figure!

    Thanks for reading the blog this season and hopefully I will be back periodically during the off-season to look at things like the combine, draft and training camps.

    But you're right... the NFL off-season is looooooooong!

  • Comment number 15.

    Given that Morstead has a 100% success rate at onside kicks I will bow down and accept he's now a specialist!

    Joking aside, had the Saints not thought that at some point during the regular season or play offs that an onside kick might be required in the final mins of a game? Rather than wait until Super Bowl week to practice.

    Don't forget you also need to report regularly on the Favre 'will he or won't he' saga - it wouldn't be an off season without it....

  • Comment number 16.

    You make a good point about practising the onside kick. According to reports from the US, Morstead had not even attempted one in practice until 12 days before the Super Bowl.

    And that does surprise me. I have been to a lot of NFL training camps and at every one I have seen the kickers messing about on the sidelines or working out before and after the regular players. And on each occasion I have seen them trying onside kicks... so surely he must have had some idea how to kick one!

  • Comment number 17.


    Interesting take of yours on the Saints D, "learning" the Manning strategy through the course of the game.

    I don't know if it was deliberate of Williams, opening the game with plenty of blitzes and then switching to more conservative deep coverage (instead of switching because Manning was on top), but it certainly worked. I guess I question whether the Saints secondary was really reading Manning better, or because they had more men in coverage they were taking away from Manning the high percentage plays. Manning is obviously not averse to throwing into coverage, but mostly he likes his receivers single-covered and for him to be throwing into an area where only the receiver can make the catch. The Saints took this away from him, and what started as a nuisance became a big problem when the Colts had to come from behind.

    The Porter interception, the more you look at it, was an awesome defensive play. The Saints were not showing blitz (at least they were showing a defensive scheme that had not been blitz), but this time they sent in two more rushers and Manning made his first low percentage throw of the night. I don't really blame Reggie Wayne much, it wasn't a bad route, Tracy Porter just made Manning look like a rookie the way he stepped in front to make the pick. (Very like Brandon Meriweather at Wembley intercepting Josh Freeman, if you remember the Pats-Bucs game this year)

    I think you are right, part of it was Porter and co having learned the Colts routes, but it was also the pressure of the scoreboard and a surprise blitz which sprung the defining play of the game.

  • Comment number 18.

    It's the routes they read, not Manning. If you consistently see the inside receiver clearing out an area then another receiver entering that area from the side, then soon someone on the D will start to cheat into that area or take a risk and try and jump the route. Usually this leads to gaps elsewhere, which Manning is the master of finding. On the key play, he threw to what his option was based on his limited reads - I believe the pressure applied on that particular play limited his options - and Porter has already credited film review and making the split-second decision to jump the route for his interception.

    Wayne let the defender cross his face. You don't expect an elite NFL receiver to let that happen. He wasn't sharp out of the cut and let Porter're supposed to cut off the DB's approach angle. But still I wouldn't blame Wayne so much as credit the Saints and Porter in particular for having worked on knowing the opponent, and then having the courage of their convictions to make the call and attempt the pick.

  • Comment number 19.

    One last thing Neil, why does the Superbowl kick off at 28 past the hour? Has it historically been this odd start time? Regular season games seem to kick off at 05 or 15 past probably for TV but 28 is a bit odd? (technically it's even!)

  • Comment number 20.

    As a postscript; Morstead has British relatives, from my neck of the woods, so an extra reason to cheer on the Saints!!!

    (see in the days leading upto superbowl)

  • Comment number 21.

    Neil, as someone who was into the NFL years ago, went to a couple of games there and tuned into AFRTS, the R5Live Extra coverage has got me back into it and I have enjoyed the season. We have been lucky I think with the choice of games with so many being so close. Despite being a fan of "blue collar football" I thought the performance of Manning was great and in fact the error-free play of both sides was a credit to them. And yes I agree I think that the squibb kick was the turning point. Thank you for your insightful comments on R5.

    Years ago before the internet I subscribed to Pro-Football Weekly and Giants Extra which came by post at some expense. Despite enjoying the season I have not yet found the right way to keep up to date with NFL news - any ideas?

  • Comment number 22.

    Can someone tell me why Americans call there game football when they hardly kick the ball and change our game to soccer in the UK football has been played since as early as the 9Th century and its played in almost every country on the planet is that they are jealous that they never thought of it first ho sorry they weren't around then.


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