January 7, 2007

2006 NFL Coach of the Year: Sean Payton: Head coach is second straight Saints rookie coach to win award

The past two Saints administrations have now started similarly in more ways than one.

Young hotshot coordinator from prodigious coaching tree hired to be the head coach? Check.

New quarterback, or in the previous administration's case, two new quarterbacks? Check.

10-6 record with division title? Check.

NFL Coach of the Year Award? Check.

Executive of the Year Award? Pending.

While we're at it, the 2000 Saints even had a rookie draft pick runningback from USC making waves as a return specialist and situational back, in Chad Morton.

Payton's award, the AP NFL Coach of the Year, comes on the heels of one of the Saints' most successful seasons ever, on and off the field.

The top annual honor for NFL head coaches was won by Payton by a huge margin, 44 out of a possible 50 votes from sportswriters and journalists across the country, with the Jets' Eric Mangini, the Chargers' Marty Schottenheimer and the Titans' Jeff Fisher got a share of the remaining votes.

His innovative playcalling means the Saints don't have a true offensive coordinator: Doug Marrone is the offensive line coach and running game coordinator but Payton makes the calls on the sideline. Yet still, Payton has enough brain power to make veteran moves on the field, such as calling a timeout near the end of the first quarter to retain the wind in Giants Stadium, his masterwork of deconstruction against Dallas QB Tony Romo, Payton's former student, which helped unravel Romo's season, to kneeling away precious time with the score tied against the Eagles.

Payton's most brilliant moves as the Saints head coach came before the season, or even training camp started. By hiring a coaching staff rich with collegiate coaching experience, many straight out of the NCAA ranks, Payton has put together a staff of teachers the beneficiaries of which are one of the most productive rookie classes in Saints history.

The evolution of the Saints' young players has been remarkable under Payton's tutelage, a remarkable feat without the 10-6 record and divisional crown. Reggie Bush has turned from an unbridled colt to a patient, visionary weapon. His running style has changed, and what was once blind speed is now crafty, versatile precision. Bush's ascension can be credited to Payton, senior offensive assistance/runningbacks coach George Henshaw, and Bush's on-field teacher Deuce McAllister, each of whom has played an important role in the prize draft pick's maturation process.

Second round pick safety Roman Harper was playing well and making plays before going down early in the season with a knee injury, and over two decades of combined experience in Jay Bellamy and Omar Stoutmire has not quite replaced him. Fourth round pick Jahri Evans has become a fixture at right guard despite playing for tiny Division II Bloomsburg University's football program last season. The seventh round picks, Zach Strief and Marques Colston, have played well this season. For Strief, it was some limited time as a stellar backup against NFC South opponents for Jammal Brown. Strief played well in two games against Tampa Bay and Carolina.

Marques Colston, the other shining jewel of the draft class, transformed from oversized underdeveloped prospect to the silent star of the receiving corp. A player we thought was perhaps a hybrid tight end/receiver with a future on the practice squad turned - immediately - into a scoring machine with the best rookie season for a Saints receiver in franchise history.

Meanwhile, last year's first round pick, tackle Jammal Brown, went from hesitant and shaky in August to Pro Bowler in December. Marrone's coaching ability helped Brown more than successfully make the difficult transition from right to left tackle. On the other side of the line, Jon Stinchcomb is in his first year as a starter and has been a lock down right tackle and part of the league's best offense.

So the prize of Payton's 2006 season may be a coach of the year award, a divisional championship and possibly more, but the lasting reward of his rookie effort will be a host of young players that are poised to carry the team into the future.

Playoff Matchup: The Saints will face the Eagles on Saturday night at 7pm. The Eagles defeated the Giants Sunday night and are the highest remaining playoff seed.

Notes: Payton is the third Saints coach to win the honor, joining Haslett (2000) and Jim Mora (1987)... WR Joe Horn should be ready to play for Saturday night's divisional playoff game against Seattle or Philadelphia in the Superdome. Horn hasn't played since early December when he worsened a groin muscle injury... CB Mike McKenzie suffered a back injury in a four-car wreck this past week. He is walking gingerly and practicing, but expects to play next week... TE Mark Campbell and S Omar Stoutmire are expected to play as well... The remaining draft picks not mentioned in the story are fifth round DE Rob Ninkovich (Saints injured reserve), sixth round picks WR Mike Hass (Chicago Bears practice squad) and CB Josh Lay (St. Louis Rams practice squad).

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