MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – For a while this morning, it was great to be a fringe outsider to Who Dat nation. Jimmy Buffett had come to hug Saints coach Sean Payton, who was still holding onto his new favorite trinket, the Super Bowl XLIV trophy, while the coach's older brother, Tom, was preparing to light up a cigar. Meghan, the coach's daughter, walked into the private room, and Payton made sure she touched and held the trophy, football's Holy Grail.
"Isn't it something," Payton said to those nearby, "that I have Joe Lombardi, Vince's grandson, on my staff? He has a jaw just like Vince."
Yes, Mardi Gras had come to South Florida. The celebration was in full gear and somewhere inside the ballroom of the team's hotel, owner Tom Benson had his two favorite archbishops nearby, plus two Dominican nuns and two Jesuits from Loyola University.
All of Louisiana's prayers had been answered. The Saints, a team once so bad their fans put brown paper bags over their heads, had whipped the hometown golden boy, Archie's kid, to win their first Super Bowl.
And, fans, the future is bright. The Saints may have come across as a team of destiny, rewarding a city and a state that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But quarterback Drew Brees is younger than Peyton Manning and the only other significantly old player on the roster is safety Darren Sharper. The Saints have their last four first-round picks playing important roles, plus they have hit on 15 other free agents besides Brees as everything that Payton and GM Mickey Loomis have touched lately has turned into gold.
They made three decent trades, too, between 2006 and 2008 to fill starting roles. Tight end Jeremy Shockey scored the go-ahead touchdown, linebacker Jonathan Vilma led with seven solo tackles and fellow linebacker Scott Shanle was right behind with six more.
This may not be a dynasty in the making, but it has a lot of great interchangeable offensive parts - eight players caught at least one pass - and Brees may be short, but he's long on accuracy, smarts and poise. The Saints can finally boast that there aren't too many triggermen in the NFL better than him.
"I won't say you voted for the wrong quarterback for MVP," said Marques Colston, who caught seven passes. "But I know how hard Drew works and how much he means to us. I think this win means he has to be mentioned in the same breath as Peyton."
But the brash man who put these Saints over the hump, while making life very interesting for Sean Payton, is defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. A lot of NFL people think Williams loves to hear himself talk - and Payton sent him some peanut butter and saltines hoping he would have a tough time talking while eating on media day - but the guy delivered in the playoffs. In the NFC playoffs, his players beat the snot out of a pair of legends, Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. Already, Warner has retired and Favre may soon decide to take the same course.
According to Payton, Williams altered his defensive looks throughout the Super Bowl against Manning. In the first quarter, it was basically a four-man line. Then in the Colts' six-snap second quarter, the Saints used a 3-4 look. In the second half, Williams kept switching back and forth.
"Sometimes it was a 3-3 look with one of those linebackers really a cornerback," Williams said. "Malcolm Jenkins (this season's No. 1 pick) and Randall Gay really played well tonight. I can't say enough about Gay, who was so sick these past two days. I don't know how many IVs he took to get rid of that stomach congestion. I know he must have been up all night going to the bathroom."
Manning and his Colts offense practiced with simulated crowd noise during their weekly practices, knowing full well that the Saints might enjoy a home-field advantage in Sun Life Stadium.
"I knew our fans would show up," Payton said. "They were loud enough that Manning went to the no-huddle and was using the head-bob signals like he does."
Manning declined to give the Saints much credit for their alternating defensive looks, but Williams said that on at least 20 plays he believed that Manning either audibled right into the play they wanted him to run or switched to one that made it much better for his defense.
On Tracy Porter's game-deciding interception return for a touchdown -- yes, the same player who picked Favre in the NFC championship game -- Porter jumped the route and pass for Reggie Wayne, knowing exactly where Manning was going to throw.
"We had a blitz on that play and I was sending seven, and I think six showed up," Williams said of the defensive call.
There are always a series of critical plays within a championship game. For me, the tide turned at the end of the first half, when Payton gambled on fourth down in the shadow of the end zone and failed. But rookie Colts head coach Jim Caldwell played right into the gamble. The Colts had gone conservative, actually running the ball five times in their previous eight plays.
Granted, the Colts were stuck on their own 1-yard line with the Saints pressing the line of scrimmage. But the Colts have Manning, a four-time MVP quarterback, and they treated him like some decent veteran -- not like the special player we believe him to be.
Why no pass attempts? Why so conservative?
"Because of where we were on the field," Caldwell told me. "I didn't want to take any chances down there. I didn't want to throw and stop the clock."
But the Colts weren't able to run it out of there and the Saints used their timeouts to force a punt and still ended up with a 44-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley as the first half ended.
"I felt a lot better about my fourth-down gamble after we got that field goal," Payton said. "That was really important going into the locker room. I think our team was feeling good then about how it all worked out."
As soon as Payton got inside, he decided to go for the onside kick. He worked on his second-half offensive script while his players took off their shoulder pads and had something to eat while The Who performed. The Saints had noticed that two of the Colts on the kick return unit had been turning early; plus nobody had tried an onside kick on them in a long time.
"I thought the risk was worth taking, thinking there was a 65 to 70 percent chance of it working." Payton said.
Brees completed his next five passes, the last one a little flip to Pierre Thomas, who rumbled 16 yards for a touchdown, running out of Antoine Bethea's tackle.
Later, the stars were truly aligned when Payton challenged the no-good call on the field by line judge Jeff Seeman on Lance Moore's two-point conversion attempt.
"I'm not a big fan of doing that because I hate losing a timeout, but the coaches upstairs kept saying he took the ball across the goal-line. So I tossed the red flag," Payton said.
Yes, Payton made all the right moves and calls in this game and this season. His special teams had practiced the onside attempt successfully during the week, and after last year's 8-8 record he made a personal bet on Williams, coughing up $250,000 of his own money, to help boost the defensive coordinator's salary. The Saints gave Payton back his money after the team started the season 9-0.
The South Beach celebration was still going strong at 3 a.m. and many of those toasting the Saints were talking about how New Orleans was celebrating, too. The victory parade, coinciding with Fat Tuesday, was already planned. "I don't think many people back home will be going to work tomorrow, let alone this week," said one. "We've waited a long time for this."