When Sean Payton, the coach of the New Orleans Saints, called for an onside kick to open the second half of the Super Bowl almost two years ago, his intention was clear: He wanted to steal a possession and momentum from the Indianapolis Colts and give his own offence a short field. The play worked, and it became the pivotal moment in franchise history.
Payton's faked field goal on the Saints' opening drive against the New York Giants last Monday night was not freighted with significance – and it didn't work – but it sent a strong signal about how he expected the game to play out. There would not be a need for extra possessions or short fields, or even field goals. He was willing to gamble with three points early in the game because he knew there would most likely be many more to come.
It might be aggressiveness. It might be recklessness. But Payton's confidence is most certainly an homage to his quarterback, Drew Brees, who has mostly backed up his coach's hubris with the kinds of performances that would be the talk of the NFL if Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers did not exist. Facing almost no pressure from an anemic pass rush, and bedevilling it on the occasions it got near him, Brees lacerated the Giants' defence over and over, completing 24 of 38 passes for 363 yards, four passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown (he said the defence looked to him like the Red Sea parting on that play), no sacks and no interceptions in a 49-24 victory.
The Saints piled up more than 500 yards of total offence with 11 minutes remaining, and finished with 577, a startling indictment of the Giants' defence but also a warning shot to those who might overlook the Saints when the postseason begins. Whatever struggles the Saints had scoring early in the season, particularly in the red zone (the loss to the St. Louis Rams stands as one of the NFL's great head-scratchers) are gone. The Saints were a mind-boggling 5-for-6 in the red zone against the Giants.
It spurred Brees to invoke the 2009 offence, which vaulted the Saints to that Super Bowl victory.
"I feel like we have an opportunity to be better, but we're not there yet," Brees said. "A lot of guys from the '09 team and the guys that weren't part of the '09 team we've added – Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Mark Ingram – not too shabby."
Brees hit all of those targets Monday night, completing passes to seven receivers. Brees has long been the NFL's most accurate passer. He set the record in 2009 with a 70.6-per-cent completion rate, which both he (70.9) and Rodgers (71.8) are ahead of this season. But his exhibition Monday was as varied as his weapons.
There were big plays. In the first half alone he had five passes that went for more than 20 yards, four of them deep, and he fired a 29-yard pass to Graham for a touchdown in the third quarter. There were passes with a perfect touch, like the 23-yarder on the left sideline to Graham with three defenders nearby in zone coverage. There were flashes of Brees's athletic ability, as when he slipped away from New York defenders Justin Tuck and Linval Joseph and hit a completion before going out of bounds. And he ran for an eight-yard touchdown, finishing with a dive over the goal line and a blown attempt to use the crossbar to imitate a Michael Jordan dunk he had once performed on a lowered rim as a child.
But the series that might have shown just how at ease Payton is with Brees, and how much command Brees has of the offence, started with 1 minute 9 seconds remaining in the first half. Most coaches, with their team starting on their 12-yard line and little time remaining, would have called for conservative plays to avoid a turnover. But Brees had implored Payton on the sideline, "Let us go, let us go," wide receiver Lance Moore said. So the drive started with Brees in the shotgun, completing a short pass to the left side of the field to Marques Colston, who turned it into a 50-yard scamper up the sideline. In the end, the Saints used just 34 seconds to go 88 yards for a touchdown that gave them a 21-3 halftime lead.
"There's a confidence we have in that he understands the situation, and he understands the significance," Payton said. 'We try to gain as many possessions as we can, and we still felt we had enough time on the clock."
Brees leads the league in passing yards, with 3,689, and he is ahead of the pace to break Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yards of 5,084. He came achingly close in 2008, with 5,069, and he said Monday night that he would be lying if he said he did not want the record. With 27 touchdown passes and five games remaining, he is almost certain to exceed his career high of 34 touchdown passes, set in 2008 and 2009, particularly because the Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers are among the Saints' coming opponents.
Regardless, left tackle Jermon Bushrod said Brees always had the same demeanour and look: as if he wants to dominate.
He is doing that again this season, and he has injected an idea into the final month of the season that should send a chill through the Saints' future opponents. Can the Saints and Brees get better, still, before the playoffs begin? What would happen if they again met the Packers, whom they lost to, 42-34, in the season opener?
"There's plenty of room for improvement," Brees said. "Despite what the stat sheet says, there's always things that you wish you would have done better. This game, I could have been more efficient. I'm hard on myself. I expect perfection. I understand that's impossible to achieve. But deep down, there are things I can definitely do better."
This season, perhaps only Rodgers is able to understand what Brees is reaching for.
The New York Times News Service