Cowboys-Saints for more than bragging rights

Published 4:40 am Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sean Payton should be pretty proud of himself. The two best quarterbacks in the NFC right now are the guy he’s currently coaching and the one he spent the last three years grooming.

He’d probably be more excited if he didn’t have to go on the road to face his former pupil — and his former boss, Bill Parcells.

Payton, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints take their playoff push go to Texas Stadium on Sunday night for a pivotal game against Parcells, Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys.

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Both teams are 8-4, leading their divisions and keeping an eye on playoff seeding. Because the winner of this game will be a step closer to a first-round bye, everyone is viewing it more as a showdown than a reunion for Payton and the folks who’ve followed him from Dallas to New Orleans.

Yet it’s hard to get past the reunion angle. Even in trying to keep the focus on the game itself, Payton sounded like Parcells.

“What’s most important is that you have … two teams that have put themselves in position — and I emphasize that, put themselves in position — to play for a ninth win,” Payton said. “At this stretch of the season, that’s what it is.”

The Saints have won two straight since consecutive losses left fans fearing their feel-good story had run its course. Reggie Bush is coming off a four-touchdown game, but the defense got a jolt this week when starting defensive tackle Hollis Thomas was suspended for using a banned steroid.

The Cowboys are 5-1 since Romo took over. They’ve won four in a row and will be trying to match their longest winning streak of the Parcells era. The coach is so enthused by his team’s roll that on Monday he gave them a lesson in Championship Football 101.

“We know we’re actually playing for something now,” linebacker Bradie James said. “December is where you really push because that’s where everyone finds out whether they’ll be on vacation in January or actually playing for something.”

As compelling as the stakes might be, NBC flexed its scheduling muscle and moved this game into prime time primarily to showcase Romo, Parcells and the relationship Payton has with both of them.

Payton opted not to spice up things by saying something juicy about Parcells, even though Parcells used to call him “Dennis the Menace.” (Why? “Because he’d have a Coca-Cola and a couple of cookies and then he was all wired up,” Parcells said.)

Instead, Payton admitted calling Parcells several times this season for advice.

Parcells took the high road, too, opting to forget how annoyed he was when Payton was trying to pluck folks away this offseason. Parcells made his point by blocking offensive line coach Tony Sparano from leaving and matching an offer sheet for safety Keith Davis.

Payton wanted Romo, too, but Parcells wasn’t about to let that happen. When Payton called to see about trading for Romo, Parcells told him “to lay down on the couch and have some warm milk.”

Payton knew Romo’s potential because he was his position coach the last three years. However, sticking with his anti-hype theme, Payton refused to take any credit for the poise and polish Romo has shown.

“I probably wouldn’t be where I am without him and he knows that,” Romo said. “He is just being modest.”

Payton helped Romo with technical things like the angle of his release, and finer points such as his mental approach to third downs, understanding there are “only so many plays where you are going to have to make a play.”

Most of all, Payton gave Romo the confidence that he could get the job done, something he needed to outlast five other starters before even getting to throw his first pass.

“Sean was always coaching me up,” said Romo, who on Thursday was voted NFC offensive player of the month for November. “He just puts you in such a good position consistently to perform, and he gets guys open and you can’t say enough about that as a quarterback.”

While stories vary about Payton’s role in Romo signing with Dallas as an undrafted rookie, they do share an undeniable link: Eastern Illinois. Romo broke or challenged many of the records Payton set at the Division I-AA school.

Their college careers remain a source of ribbing between them. For instance, when Romo was asked this week for one thing Payton said that’s stuck with him most, he laughed and said, “He continually told me how he was the top quarterback to come out of Eastern Illinois. It has just been a motivating factor for me to knock him off that pedestal.”

Had Payton remained in Dallas, he would’ve been among the favorites to eventually replace Parcells, especially the way things have gone with his prized pupil.

Instead, Payton took the Saints job — and some familiar faces followed.

He traded for linebacker Scott Shanle, claimed tackle Rob Petitti and receiver Terrance Copper off waivers, and signed linebacker Scott Fujita and kicker Billy Cundiff as free agents. He also hired Dallas linebackers coach Gary Gibbs as his defensive coordinator, and Gibbs hired the son of Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to be one of his aides.

Unable to land Romo, Payton did just fine by getting Brees.

The former San Diego star has recovered from offseason surgery to lead the NFL in completions and yards, making him a solid MVP candidate. This game is a treat for the Austin native who grew up rooting for Troy Aikman and the Cowboys.

“The last time I started a game in Texas Stadium we won the state championship there in my senior year in high school in 1996,” said Brees, who returned in ’01 as a backup with San Diego. “This will be the first coming back as a pro that I get a chance to play in Texas Stadium. It will be special.”