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Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

A Coach’s Victory; A People’s Story

In NFL on February 8, 2010 at 4:56 am

Despite what sportswriters would have you believe there are actually only a few genuine moments a year that resonate with poignancy and an almost poetic rightness. Generally they are spoiled by people’s attempts to predict them, so by the time they come around they are all talked out, enough column inches filled to the point where every pub bore can regurgitate the broad strokes of the storyline as if it were a soap opera. The ones that really shake you, the ones that mean the most to the true sports fans of the worlds are the ones you never really dare to predict; the ones that you don’t see coming. When they do it is hard not to get sucked in to the swirls of raw emotion that surround such moments and it is tattooed onto the memory with ink so potent it barely fades with time.

I have just finished watching the superbowl and felt myself sucked in to one of those moments and it is better for the lack of starry eyed optimism in the build-up. Nobody really dared to say that New Orleans could win it, those that hinted it might be possible did so tentatively and only then once they had made it to the superbowl itself. Even during the play-offs everyone was so focused on the possibility of seeing the sporting statistician’s wet-dream in the form of a Peyton Manning and Brett Favre head-to-head that few were even concentrating on the Saints story. Even in victory the match was somehow still about Favre, but that is just the nature of the business.

Yet in the early hours I witnessed one of the most fantastic superbowls I have seen for a good while, an affirmation that the beautiful game can be played on the big stage in what was an almost flawless performance from both teams. It was easily one of the most error-free finals of all time, with both solid defence and flowing offence was on display. It also featured an unlikely comeback and high drama in the fourth quarter and in the end the winners were worthy. At the moment of victory you realised who you had been routing for all along and you’d be hard pushed to find anyone that felt any different. Of course, as has been said, New Orleans were the underdogs, their first appearance at a superbowl in their entire history and they were led by Drew Brees who was himself the epitome of the underdog having been discarded by San Diego on the  grounds they didn’t think he’d make the cut… Yet there’s even more to it than that.

New Orleans is a city still far from healed, the devastation from Hurricane Katrina leaving deep scars in a community that is desperately trying to rebuild almost virtually on its own. It is not just a literal rebuilding that is taking place, many of the residential areas still without houses and local businesses still not returned, but a spiritual one also. The memory of those who died and the way that certain parts of the media handled the disaster are still fresh and the pride that the people of New Orleans have in the way they have come together to deal with such problems is deserved. There is a quiet dignity about the way the city has laid down new foundations and while it will never erase the memories of what happened, something that was unthinkable then and still remains almost unbelievable now, for the first time since those dark days New Orleans is back in the world spotlight.

What a way to turn a corner. And while the Saints have handled themselves admirably all season, they owe this victory in the biggest match to their coach whose belief in his team and ballsy plays are the real reason they turned round a 0 – 10 defecit against one of the most consistent teams in the NFL to outscore them 31 – 17. At times the calls looked needlessly gutsy, such as the fourth down running play that saw them shut out and without a field goal, but in the end they worked. Yes, Sean Payton understands the SAS motto “who dares wins” more than most and what a refreshing change it makes to the “safety first” mindset or spoiling tactics that seem to go hand in hand with winners. There is no bigger testament to a coach’s faith in his team when he is prepared to gamble everything in the unwavering belief that they will come good, and he did that. The bond he will now have with his players as a result will be stronger than it ever was and Payton is a coach that is already blessed with some of the best man management and motivational skills in the league.

The game turned on that pivotal onside kick, which saw the Saints take back possession and I think it was only then that people outside of New Orleans began to believe that it would happen. Up until then the talk was of the future hall-of-famer Peyton Manning and what he was going to do. After that the talk was about Brees who put on a masterclass, equalling Brady’s completion record in a superbowl and throwing for almost 300 yards. When Manning threw the only intercepted pass of the final straight to Tracy Porter, himself from New Orleans, he returned it the full distance and it was over. And there’s your story, the day that the great weren’t great enough and the underdogs were close to perfection. But they were elevated to that high-point by a coach that came into this game unafraid and convinced that he was a conduit for destiny.

Self-belief and confidence are huge factors in any sport and they flow through the bloodstream of champions, which is why winning generally becomes habitual and losers remain in the mire. Yet it has to start with someone before it can spread through a team and Sean Payton injected it into a group of players that may have, in the back of their mind, been humble enough to have accepted second place given what they had already achieved. Certainly if they had glanced at newspapers before the game they would have been forgiven for thinking that the Colts had a God-given right to lift the trophy. The calls made by their coach underlined that they were equals, capable of winning and the light of understanding that showed in the intensity of their performance.

New Orleans winning a superbowl is a headline you never think you’ll read. For it to come while Hurrican Katrina is fresh in the mind makes it all the more moving. Tomorrow will the talk be of Drew Brees, the rightful MVP, and a possible place for him in the hall of fame in years to come? Will they be about an almost telepathic link between coach and quarterback that is a fundamental building block in any successful franchise? Will anyone even dare to bandy the word “dynasty” about? Probably not… Instead they will talk at length about what the victory means to the people, a worthy and beautiful story to focus on for sure, one that would speak to anyone about the ties between sport and the society it serves. For me, though, if they print one thing it has to be that Payton showed that if you really want something you can take it – all it takes is courage. Incredible to think then that the feel-good sports story of the year, and probably for some years to come, all comes down to the decisions of one man. This was a coach’s victory in the truest sense, but we all come out of it feeling like winners.