New Orleans Saints' Head Coach honored as the NFL's Coach of the Year.
Sean Payton might have had the toughest coaching job in football this season, making his selection Saturday as The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year that much more impressive.
Payton, in his first year as a head coach, didn't just lead the New Orleans Saints to a 10-6 record, the NFC South championship and a first-round playoff bye. He helped revitalize a battered city's spirit.
With New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005, the Saints became nomads that year, winding up 3-13 under Jim Haslett. Payton, an assistant coach in Dallas, was hired to revive one of the NFL's historically unsuccessful franchises.
Payton and his team gave the city - indeed, the entire Gulf Coast - something it desperately needed: a reason to smile.
And hopes for the Saints' first Super Bowl appearance.
"It's just been the right mix of guys who believe in each other," said Payton, who ran away in the balloting by a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL. "Players putting the team ahead of everything else. I think that's the biggest thing that we've been able to do to date. That's what's most important. That's what we were looking for in the offseason: character, toughness, those are things you win with."
Payton received 44 votes in a season when there were a half-dozen outstanding coaching performances. Eric Mangini of the New York Jets, another first-year head coach, got three votes, while San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer, the 2004 winner, received two. Jeff Fisher of Tennessee got one.
Payton became the third Saints coach to win the award, joining Haslett (2000) and Jim Mora (1987). Last year's winner was Chicago's Lovie Smith.
No coach ever was faced with rebuilding a roster while his community was recovering from such devastation. Football might seem trivial under such circumstances, but Payton and his players understood how uplifting their success could be to those struggling to put together their lives again.
"It was a new coach. He wanted to put his foot on the ground and establish that this was a new beginning," veteran wide receiver Joe Horn said. "In our profession, football, you don't start a new beginning by coming in and making it easy. It has to be hard.
"Fortunately for us we won football games. It worked out well."
So well that the Saints had their best regular season thanks to a potent offense and strong special teams.
Give Payton credit for those units, too. He signed free agent quarterback Drew Brees even though Breed was coming off delicate surgery on his throwing shoulder. Brees responded with a Pro Bowl season.
Payton lucked out when Reggie Bush was bypassed at the top of the draft by Houston, and Bush was a dynamic rookie as a runner, receiver and punt returner.
Even more dynamic was seventh-round pick Marques Colston, a receiver from Hofstra who had a questionable work ethic and concentration lapses in college. Under Payton's guidance, Colston became an elite rookie.
Payton wisely alternated running back Deuce McAllister, coming off a serious knee injury, with Bush, and McAllister finished with 1,057 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.
"We have a great head coach in Sean Payton, and his system," " Brees said. "I think we all believe in it, and I think it suits us all very well. I think we take a lot of pride in it."