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 sportswriters 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."
|Sean Payton turned the Saints from 3-13 nomads into the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. (AP)|
"I'm honored and somewhat humbled. This is a time in our league right now where there are probably seven or eight Hall of Fame coaches currently coaching in our league," Payton said Saturday after learning of the award. "I still have tags hanging out of my Reebok gear on the sidelines."
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.
"You have to trust your gut a lot and follow your heart," Payton said. "There certainly were going to be some challenges coming into this region at this time. But I think the city is very committed to this team and it's really an amazing fan base we have, not just in New Orleans, but in this whole Gulf South area. And I'm excited we can provide a little juice for these people during the course of the week, get them excited about football."
Payton began with a tough training camp of two-a-day practices in the heat of Jackson, Miss. Many players called it one of the most demanding camps.
"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.