According to New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
It was never a question of why, but rather why not? It marked the first time in Super Bowl history that a team had attempted an onside kick before the fourth quarter. But for Payton, the gutsy call to start the second half was simply a case of everything going according to plan.
And it’s as good a reason as any why the Saints are Super Bowl champions today.
"All week long we practiced that onside kick," Payton said. "At halftime I just told those guys, ‘You got to make me look right here.’ "
If Payton had been wrong, the results could have been disastrous. With his team already down 10-6, Payton would have been handing Peyton Manning a short field and an excellent opportunity to take a two-possession lead. And coming off a failed 4th-and-goal attempt late in the second quarter, an over-aggressive Payton would have been opening himself up for a long offseason of second-guessing.
But in this case, fortune truly did favor the bold. Thomas Morstead bounced the ball perfectly off the Colts’ Hank Baskett and Chris Reis emerged from the ensuing scrum with both the football and all the momentum his team would need to roll to the 31-17 win.
Just like Payton planned it. "He just walked by in passing and said, ‘Hey we’re running it,’ " said Morstead, who was informed with 20 minutes remaining at halftime that he’d be attempting the risky gambit.
"I wish he’d told me at the end," Morstead said with a laugh.
If Morstead was both "terrified and excited at the same time" by the play call, Payton was completely convinced of its chance for success.
"We knew we were going to call it at some point, and we made the decision we were going to do it," Payton said. "At halftime I just told them, ‘Hey we’re going to open up the second half with this. It’s going to be a great play.’ "
But not even Payton could have anticipated how great.
After failing to get the ball into the end zone in the first half, the Saints needed just six plays to get there after Payton’s gamble paid off, taking a 13-10 lead on Drew Brees’ 16-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Thomas. And even though the Colts would regain the lead on the next possession, Indy never regained control of the game.
"Well, obviously, it certainly was a bold call in that situation," Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said. "It gave them momentum because obviously they took it down the field and scored. Had it been a situation where we had stopped them from scoring, you know, it’s a different story. They took a gamble. It paid off for them and certainly changed the momentum of the game at that point."
It did more than that. It also meant Manning started the second half on the sideline, where it proved to be much more difficult for the four-time MVP to impose his will on the game.
Again, all part of Payton’s master plan.
"We knew time of possession was going to be important," Payton said. "What we were trying to do was create an additional series, which we were able to do. … But we were also trying to minimize (Manning’s) snaps. And we were able to do that to some degree."
To some degree? It’s how the Saints were able to rally from an early 10-0 deficit, matching the largest comeback in Super Bowl history in the process. Between Manning’s touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon and the Colts’ first possession of the second half, Indy ran just six offensive plays (including three inexplicable running plays near the end of the first half that allowed the Saints to get the ball back and kick a field goal on the final play before halftime).
Two three-and-outs. That’s all Manning and the Colts managed in 15:36 of game time. It’s no coincidence that New Orleans outscored Indianapolis 13-0 during that stretch, turning what could have easily been a laugher into a back-and-forth game that wasn’t decided until Tracy Porter returned his interception of Manning 74 yards for a score with 3:24 remaining.
But perhaps more important than the momentum swing, more important than keeping Manning off the field, Payton’s bold move conveyed better than any halftime pep talk could that he had complete faith in his guys.
And they got the message loud and clear.
"Our head coach is unbelievable," Brees said. "Not only as an offensive guru, a guy who is a great play caller, an aggressive play caller, a confident play caller, but a guy who can instill all those things into a player."
"I just think it’s important that certainly, you have a plan, you’re going to carry it forward," Payton said. "Yet you want to show your players that you’re confident in them. All week long we felt, we really felt as underdogs, that we had the better team."