An exhilarating second-half surge helped the New Orleans Saints win Super Bowl XLIV, but the force that powered the franchise to its first championship was a willingness to risk it all to win it all.
New Orleans head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams used a high-risk, high-reward strategy to catch the Colts by surprise and caused Indianapolis to make huge, uncharacteristic mistakes and lose a game that the Colts at one time led by 10 points.
Payton Outwits the Colts
Sean Payton is an offensive mastermind—at least for the 2009 NFL season—and his Drew Brees-led unit is unstoppable.
The Saints averaged 35.6 points in three postseason wins, while Brees threw eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs.
Yet in the first half of the Super Bowl, Payton was outmatched by the Colts’ coaching staff and their quarterback Peyton Manning.
In the second quarter, Brees was sacked on third down during one drive, and a reverse to wide receiver Devery Henderson also resulted in a seven-yard loss.
The Saints couldn’t score in four downs from the Colts’ three-yard line, and the highest-scoring offense in the NFL this season was failing to live up to expectations.
Luckily, kicker Garrett Hartley—the Saints’ NFC title game hero—made two field goals to keep it close with the score 10-6 at halftime.
Payton’s poker face during halftime didn’t reveal his scheming conscience that would carry his team to a comeback victory.
First, the Saints successfully shocked Colts special teamer Hank Baskett with an onside kick that was recovered by New Orleans’ Jonathan Casillas to open the third quarter and give Brees and the Saints offense another opportunity to score six points.
The message was clear: Payton was putting the game in the hands of his No. 1-ranked scoring offense.
The gamble paid off as Saints running back Pierre Thomas scored six plays later on a 16-yard touchdown reception to put the Saints up 13-10.
Payton had seized the moment; the momentum shifted in New Orleans’ favor, and the Saints would remain relentless in their quest for glory for the rest of the game.
The Saints scored on every possession in the second half except their last one, when the team lined up in victory formation to celebrate an NFL championship.
With five minutes left in the game and the Saints down 17-16, Payton called a passing play from the Colts two-yard line.
New Orleans tight end Jeremy Shockey hauled in the touchdown reception, and the Saints wouldn’t relinquish the lead again.
Brees would earn Super Bowl MVP honors with 288 passing yards and two touchdowns. He was 32-of-39, a magnificent 82.0 completion percentage.
Meanwhile, the intimidating Colts offense was held to seven points in the second half. Manning threw an interception to Saints cornerback Tracy Porter, who returned the ill-fated pass 74 yards to put the game out of reach.
Instead of panicking when his team was down 10-0 in the first half, Payton stayed calm, followed his well-crafted script and ended more than forty years of heartbreak for the New Orleans Saints.
Williams’s Aggressive Tactics Subdues Colts
Gregg Williams’s first season as defensive coordinator of the Saints featured a remarkable turnaround for a defense that couldn’t stop anyone and couldn’t complement the team’s high-octane offense in an 8-8 campaign in the 2008 season.
The Saints’ defense—which was just as aggressive as its offense, blitzing Manning several times and usually making quick, sure tackles to limit Manning’s effectiveness—has been quite resourceful this season scoring eight touchdowns on defense in the regular season and making big plays at key moments throughout the postseason.
While many teams have attempted to garner the nearly impossible quarterback sack against the four-time MVP, the Saints pressured Manning but also played deeper in their back seven to keep the Colts in front of them, preventing the game-breaking play and creating opportunities for New Orleans’ defensive backs.
Williams’s unusual approach helped keep the Colts out of the end zone most of the game and paved the way for Porter’s historic romp.
The Colts’ offense outgained the Saints offense by 100 yards, 432 to 332, but the only numbers that mattered in the end were 31 and 17.
Colts' Questionable Play-Calling
Colts head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Tom Moore extended plenty of play-calling authority to future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, but none of the decision-makers could figure out how to move the ball better against the Saints defense.
The Colts haven’t run the ball well all season long, finishing last in rushing yards per game in the regular season. The team didn’t have a single 100-yard rusher the entire season—including the postseason—and Indianapolis averaged a paltry 80.9 rushing yards per game.
Although New Orleans was successful by maintaining their offensive consistency from previous games, Indianapolis should have mixed in more running plays and adjusted its offensive game plan.
The Colts registered 45 passing plays and only 19 running plays in the Super Bowl, not a big surprise for a team that scored one rushing touchdown and six passing touchdowns in the postseason.
Yet, the Saints biggest weakness was their run defense.
Other teams took advantage of the Saints’ accommodating run defense during the postseason as Arizona Cardinals running back Tim Hightower had a 70-yard touchdown run on the opening play of the divisional playoffs and Adrian Peterson walloped New Orleans for 122 yards and three touchdowns.
Colts running back Joseph Addai scored the team’s only second-half touchdown and gained 77 yards on only 13 carries—an incredible 5.92 yards per carry average.
As a team, the Colts rushed for 99 yards on 19 carries, an excellent 5.2 yards per carry average.
With the Saints clearly playing back in anticipation of a pass, Addai could have been entrusted with a few more carries considering his nearly six yards per carry average.
Manning finished 31-of-45 for 333 yards with a touchdown to Pierre Garcon and one interception.
Great stats, but when one includes the pick six to Porter and the fact that the running game had been so successful, the imbalance of the Colts’ offense is baffling.
Disregarding the Colts rush attack, Saints Pro Bowl linebacker Jonathan Vilma was free to roam in the defensive backfield and his pass defense and team-leading seven tackles was crucial in New Orleans’ victory.
It's Not a Gamble If It's Successful
The New Orleans Saints took a lot of chances to win their first NFL championship since arriving in the league in 1967.
Saints owner Tom Benson bought the team and kept the franchise in New Orleans when there were rumblings that the city’s only professional sports organization would move to another metropolis.
New Orleans hired Payton in 2006, overlooking his lack of head coaching experience.
Then the Saints acquired Brees from the San Diego Chargers when the Pro Bowler was fresh off surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder.
New Orleans made the brave decision to use its second overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft on running back Reggie Bush.
The Saints signed Vilma after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2007.
New Orleans signed the undrafted Hartley as a mid-season replacement in 2008, and he became a key contributor this season with two game-winning field goals in overtime—one in the playoffs—and three field goals in the Super Bowl.
Each choice was considered risky, illogical, and unpopular by many, but there are few regrets now that the Saints are at the top of the mountain.
Their bite was as just as dangerous as their bark, and now the underdog Saints are Super Bowl champions.