MIAMI - There's Peyton, then there's Payton, and in that order.
Peyton Manning is the marquee name in this Super Bowl.
Sean Payton is the other Payton, the one getting second-billing behind the Indianapolis Colts’ star quarterback and pitchman extraordinaire.
Yet the New Orleans Saints’ coach is making his own mark with creative, aggressive play-calling that has produced the NFL’s top offense two straight seasons and three of the past four.
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“He has an incredible knack for finding weaknesses and setting plays up and then taking advantage of opportunities that the defense presents. He’s a very aggressive play caller,” Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said. “What I mean by aggressive is he’s just not one of those guys that is just going to settle for 5- and 6-yard passes. He’s going to throw that thing deep on you often and early, so you have to be ready.”
The scary thing for the rest of the league is that the 46-year-old Payton is in only his fourth season as a head coach. And he believes he can get better.
“You’re learning all the time,” Payton said Friday. “Certainly, just as we ask our players to improve, study, hone their skills, the same has to be expected of us. There’s certain experiences that are hard to simulate, maybe, and each year, something – something maybe little, something maybe big — comes up, and you deal with it and reflect.
“You try to look at ways where you can improve as a head coach. I think that’s the nature of teaching – at least good teaching.”
During a typical practice, he might as well be professor Payton, calmly delivering instructions to the team or engaging in friendly one-on-one conversations with quarterback Drew Brees about the nuances of certain plays.
His competitive juices really start flowing on game days, when he looks like a man possessed.
He paces, waves his arms, shouts, points at the video board and runs down the sideline to throw a red challenge flag after a disputed play. A Saints touchdown might produce a fist-pump, with a leg kick for good measure.
There are the fiery glances shot at players, assistant coaches or officials – his way of saying, “Get it right!” without uttering a word.
“We’ve all seen that look,” Saints linebackers coach Joe Vitt said. “You can definitely get a picture of him on game day, the look in his eyes, the way he purses his lips, the way he sets his jaw.”
Then there is Payton, the master motivator.
“I marvel at the way he is able to say the perfect thing at the perfect moment, whatever it might be, whether it’s a motivational word or an inspirational story,” Brees said.
“He is able to always have his finger on the pulse of the team and know this is the time to press forward and work or this is the time to back off and have a little fun. He has a knack and ability to use humor or a joke to challenge you,” he said.
One example came during practice between the first and second games of this season. Veteran safety Darren Sharper intercepted Detroit rookie Matthew Stafford twice in Week 1, but was unable to score.
Payton lightheartedly reminded the entire defense that Sharper, in his 13th season, was nearly over the hill, and that everyone would have to make a block for him to return an interception for a score. Payton even told Sharper he’d buy him dinner if he managed to do it.
During the next game at Philadelphia, Sharper intercepted Kevin Kolb at the New Orleans 3 and ran it back 97 yards for a TD.
Sometimes Payton’s approach is more solemn. Players find inspirational messages or poems in their lockers. Other times, he uses props. During this postseason, he has given players commemorative baseball bats as a way to inspire his team to “bring the wood” to its opponents.
He calls on motivational speakers. Payton brought in former San Francisco safety Ronnie Lott to address the team during exhibition season, then invited him back the night before the Saints’ NFC title win over Minnesota. Other speakers have included former NBA coach Avery Johnson, NBA general manager Joe Dumars, former college head coach Bill Mallory, former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden.
Payton’s strength as an offensive coach stemmed from his playing days as a high school quarterback in Naperville, Ill., and later in college at Eastern Illinois. His brief pro playing career included stints in arena football, in the CFL and as a Chicago Bears replacement player during the ’87 strike.
Payton does not consider himself a “players’ coach,” a term he said makes him cringe.
“It’s important you’re demanding,” Payton said. “It’s important you’re fair. I think you don’t want to settle for anything less than exactly what you’re looking for, and it’s not our job to be the players’ friend. It’s our job to teach and motivate, give them a plan to be successful and make decisions.”