MIAMI – The single most preposterous element in this Super Bowl prelude has been the feigned shock and outrage that greeted Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' stated intention to deliver a few "remember me" hits on Peyton Manning.
It's football. The big hit is its essence. The key to most defensive strategies, especially those employed by Williams, lies in mounting a concussive assault on the quarterback. That ability, as much as anything, has given the Saints a chance at their first championship.
Now, on the eve of the big game, there is one question that figures to matter more than all others: Can New Orleans do to Manning what no one else has? Can the Saints deliver something approximating the "remember me" hits of which their coach speaks so fondly?
"I'm not going to apologize for that," Williams said Thursday. "I'm not going to be polite about that. That's what defenses are about."
It's refreshing, especially here at the Super Bowl, to hear from a coach who won't disguise his beliefs with politically correct bromides. Besides, Williams only teaches his players what he taught his own son, Chase, a linebacker just named to the Super Prep All-American team.
"I've told him every single time he stepped on a field of play, since he's been in little league: 'When you get done, you want them to remember your name. And if they can't remember your name, it's because you hit 'em so hard you knocked the name out of their mind.'
"That's just how it is. It's a con-tact game."
Saints head coach Sean Payton dug into his own pockets -- a quarter-million dollars worth -- to sign Williams in the offseason. The investment's brutal dividends became apparent in the playoffs. First, defensive end Bobby McCray sent Kurt Warner to the sideline for a good part of the Saints-Cardinals game, what turned out to be the last of Warner's career. Then, the next week, Williams had his guys beat up on Brett Favre. They might well have delivered the coup de grace to Favre's career, as well.
One particularly memorable hit -- Favre hit low by McCray and high by tackle Remi Ayodele -- should serve as a stark reminder of the Saints' intentions. "He could've laid down or thrown the ball away, but he sat in there and took the hit." Ayodele said of Favre. "I was surprised he got up from that."
Ayodele has seen recently leaked photographs of Favre circulating on the Internet. But the swollen ankles and knees that blew up in the game's aftermath don't leave the lineman feeling much sympathy.
"He's a warrior," Ayodele said. "He don't want nobody to feel bad for him. ... He was trying to get here just like we were."
In the meantime, a Favre-Manning comparison is one worth making, as they are pretty much opposites. One goes on will and instinct. The other is cerebral. "Favre doesn't care about punishment," McCray said. "His will to stay in there and keep playing is crazy."
There's nothing crazy about Manning, though. McCray echoes his coordinator's assessment and calls him "a genius." Everything he does is supremely rational, with a swiftly calculated purpose. What's more, unlike Favre, Manning abides by the Shakespearean dictum that holds discretion as the better part of valor.
"Some quarterbacks" -- Favre first among them -- "like to get hit," McCray said. "Some don't. Peyton is one that definitely doesn't like it. He won't sit in there and take the shots. He'll go down. He won't let you get those big hits on him. He's not a dummy for doing that. He's not a coward for doing that. He's just smart."
"He's different than everybody else," Ayodele said. "It's like playing a coach, a coach who can throw. Most quarterbacks want to look tough for their guys. That's not him. He's knows, 'I might have to take this sack, and I might look like a sissy doing it. But guess what? I'm not hurt, and I'm going to get up and play the next play. And the next play. And the next.'
"That's probably why he's one of the best quarterbacks ever to play."
Actually, he's a win away from recognition as the best ever. Whatever the Saints have planned for him, he'll find a method to evade it. If need be, he'll take a sack. He'll throw the ball away. Mostly, he'll audible and improvise in a way only he can. The betting here is that Williams' charges will always remember Peyton Manning.