The gutsiest play in Super Bowl history was supposed to be a fake punt.
“Ambush” — the New Orleans Saints‘ onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV as they trailed the Indianapolis Colts 10-6 — was inspired by Saints coach Sean Payton’s mentor Bill Parcells, who used a fake punt to help his New York Giants beat the San Francisco 49ers in the 1990 NFC Championship Game.
“I said you’ve got to have ‘you know what’ to win this game,” Parcells recalled. “In other words, don’t be afraid to take a chance because there’s a lot on the line.”
Much to Payton’s dismay, however, his special-teams coaches didn’t like the looks they saw from the Indianapolis Colts‘ punt coverage.
So they improvised, and a legend was born.
The Saints will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their only Super Bowl win by bringing the 2009 team together for a reunion before they host the Colts on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Here’s an inside look at the play that made it possible.
Developing the kick
Payton: “The idea initially was that we were playing a really good Colts team, a really good Colts offense. So how do we steal a possession?”
Parcells: “You can’t just be reactive. You’ve gotta try to be a little bit of a dictator. I know when I was coaching in championship games that I always had that in mind.”
Payton: “If you really look at it (whether the Colts started on their own 20-yard line or the Saints’ 40), that’s a difference of two Peyton Manning completions. So are you willing to risk that? Yeah. But just as importantly, I wanted our team to feel like, ‘Hey, we’re playing to win this game.’ That message was important.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees: “That was so typical of Sean at the time. I don’t want to say he’s calmed down a bit. But, man, he was hyper-aggressive at that time. And I think it was, too, for those two weeks you’re just hearing about how unstoppable the Colts are. They really could’ve been undefeated. They were 14-0 before they rested their starters. And Sean’s like, ‘Man, we’re playing this game to win. We’re not holding anything back.'”
Saints punter Thomas Morstead was a rookie at the time who also handled kickoffs. John Carney, a 23-year NFL veteran, began the season as a fill-in kicker for New Orleans and stayed with the team as a kicking consultant.
Morstead: “John Carney came up with the kick.”
Carney: “I’m gonna give [former Saints kicker] Olindo Mare credit for developing the kick, and he probably doesn’t even know this. … In December, I don’t know if I was just bored or if we had some extra time or if [special-teams coordinator Greg McMahon] said, ‘Hey, can you teach Thomas an onside kick?’ And I remembered one that I had seen Olindo perform in 2007. He hit it a little differently — it was higher. But it had the same type of spin, spinning like a top off to the left. So I kind of put that in my memory bank like, ‘That was a really cool kick. I’m gonna use that somewhere down the road.'”
McMahon: “John Carney was like, ‘Mac, you gotta check this kick out.’ It would kind of banana-tail back over — and Thomas just got better and better and better at it.”
Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas: “I’ve played 17 years of football, and I’ve never seen anyone kick the ball like that. It was unbelievable. His ball would go about 12 yards and then the spin would bring it back.”
Colts special-teams coordinator Ray Rychleski: “First of all, who was our quarterback? If you have Peyton Manning, everybody’s gonna try to steal a possession from you, right? If you remember that year, remember Bill Belichick, it was fourth-and-2 on his own 30 and he went for it and didn’t make it? So he tried to steal an extra possession. It’s the same concept. Every week we would practice surprise onside kicks. We’d do one to the left, one to the middle and one to the right. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, we usually make a tape to show them the night before. And the Saints did an onside kick in 2007 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Now it was not the same kicker, since Morstead was obviously a rookie. But it was the same special-teams coach. So the night before the game I showed them that clip.”
McMahon: “The Colts were probably the most conservative team we played all year as far as their punt return. Same with their field goal. They were playing fakes the whole time. Then all of a sudden, we look at the film of their kickoff team. ‘Man, their left tackle’s bailing, bailing, bailing (dropping back early). It’s as good of a look as we can get.’ Then I show it to Mike and Mike’s like, ‘Wow.'”
Payton: “So that became, ‘All right, this is how we’re gonna do it.’ Had Thomas been like 2-out-of-4 or 2-out-of-3, it would’ve been a lot harder. But I just saw a technique that was very consistent [when the Saints practiced it at their home facility].”
Carney: “We practiced it once while we were at the University of Miami, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh gosh, I really wish we weren’t doing this.’ You know, ‘There’s probably some guy cutting bushes over there who’s working for the Colts.'”
Saints safety Chris Reis, who wound up recovering the kick: “I’m gonna be honest, I never dreamed … no one ever thought Sean would call this. Honestly, like, who would do that?”
Saints safety Usama Young: “It’s Sean Payton. Of course I believed it.”
Payton: “The night before the game, rarely would I speak in the special-teams meeting. But that game I just took a few minutes and said, ‘Look, here’s the deal. We’re gonna run this. I can’t tell you when, but I’m calling it. And you guys are gonna have to make me right.'”
Saints cornerback Jabari Greer: “At first we thought it was Sean being Sean. But then we realized Sean was 100 percent committed. And we’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s happening. It is happening.'”
Morstead: “I remember telling my dad the night before the game, ‘Hey, if something crazy happens, it was on purpose.’ I needed to let somebody know that something crazy was coming. Because when I hit it in the game, my mom was panicked. She thought I missed the kick.”
The Saints fell behind 10-0. And their first gamble failed when they went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. But they eventually closed the gap to 10-6 as time expired in the second quarter.
Payton: “We went in at halftime, the routine was different because it’s 35 minutes for the Super Bowl. They’re out of their pads, put on clean T-shirts, some light sandwiches. And I said to the offense, ‘I want to start the half with this onside kick. So be ready. Defense, you gotta be ready as well. And Thomas.’ And, look, I probably should have waited, because Thomas had to sit there for like 25 minutes with the idea that this was coming.”
Morstead: “Straight blood-pressure spike. I mean, I did not put off a good vibe. I don’t take my helmet off ever during halftime; it’s like a thing for me. So I’m a rookie sitting in my locker for half an hour with my helmet, just looking like a nervous frantic guy.”
Carney: “Helmet on, chin strap buckled and proceeds to go into a coma.”
Morstead: “At first it was just straight negative thoughts. ‘I’m gonna let this snowball. I’m gonna think of every negative thing I can.’ And then my special-teams coach that I had in college, Frank Gansz Sr., he passed away the day after I got drafted. And this thing he used to say was, ‘Normally the more aggressive team wins.’ I kept his picture up in my locker that whole year. And I just looked up at his photo and thought, ‘Well, this is pretty f—in’ aggressive.’ And I smiled, like relaxed.”
Colts linebacker Gary Brackett: “We were up, and we were actually playing pretty good defense. So we were thinking, ‘Hey, if we get the ball and we get a score, we could get control of the game. Because when you get into a two-possession game, that’s when teams start to reach and you can take them out of their game plan.”
Payton: “Coming out of the half, I was doing a quick interview with a reporter, and while we were talking I had noticed that I told the officials we wanted to kick left to right. And right away my mind shifted toward, ‘This is gonna be on their sideline, it’s gonna be on their bench. And we don’t want to do that.’ So I saw the officials and [cut off the interview] and ran out and said, ‘Hey, we want to go right to left.'”
Morstead: “My adrenaline is just going through the roof now. I’m out there warming up, blasting kickoffs as far as I can. And I told [Colts punter Pat McAfee], ‘Hey, tell your returner not to even bother going out there, because this is gonna be in the stands.’ I was trying to sell the Kool-Aid to anybody I could.”
McAfee: “Haha, I don’t remember the exact quote from him. But I do remember him telling me that he was gonna try and boot it out.”
Morstead: “And then I remember going to the sideline, and John Carney was so good for me my rookie year. And he’d always tell me, ‘T-Mo, 10 percent.’ Like, just hit it 10 percent.”
Carney: “Hit 10 percent of the ball and [use] 10 percent of your swing.”
Morstead: “And he was the last person that said anything to me. He kind of grabbed me by my shoulder pads, turned me around and said, ‘T-Mo. One percent.'”
Carney: “Coach Payton and his attention to detail, before we left the locker room, he told the entire team, ‘I don’t want anybody watching what’s going on on the field. I want you drinking Gatorade. I want you talking to your coach.'”
Brees: “You feel like you’ve got cameras on you on the sideline reading your lips or looking at your reaction. Like, ‘Act normal, act normal. Nothing’s going on here.'”
Morstead: “I got to my spot, and I had a little ‘FG’ Frank Gansz thing on my shoe, and remember thinking, ‘Frank, I hope you’re with me on this one.’ And then I just kind of blacked out from there.”
Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief: “The kick was the most amazing part of the whole thing. Not the recovery. Not the decision to do it. None of that. It’s a rookie punter! Who drops an absolute dime.”
McAfee: “When I saw it all happen, I was obviously upset because that isn’t a fantastic way to start a half, especially in the Super Bowl. But now that I’ve had a chance to really dissect it and watch it numerous times, it’s one of the most impressive kicks to ever happen. To be a rookie and to pull off a very difficult kick, one that involves precision, deception and touch all in one — and it was the biggest moment of all time — is such an impressive feat. Thomas Morstead will go down as one of the most accomplished punters to ever walk this earth.”
Morstead: “I would say it was probably a yard or yard and a half deeper than would’ve been perfect. It was about 13 and a half.”
Colts linebacker Cody Glenn: “I just really remember how surprised we were, I guess with us being the favorite and them having the balls to do that coming out of halftime. You can watch as much film as you want to, but I don’t recall them doing that all year just based on watching film.”
Payton: “[Colts receiver Hank] Baskett played it pretty well. He stayed flat-footed instead of leaving. And it hit him, and there was a scrum. If I’d have known there was gonna be a five-minute scrum, I probably wouldn’t have called it.”
The ball was supposed to go to Saints safety Roman Harper on the far left side of New Orleans’ formation — which happened every time they practiced it.
Harper: “It came to me every time. Like, there was never a time it didn’t come to me.”
Reis: “It was always Roman. But we never practiced it full speed. And here’s the great thing about football. Many times you draw up a play, and it usually never goes according to plan. But it works out perfectly because there’s a reason they put me in that position to loop around behind Roman.”
Saints wide receiver Courtney Roby: “My role was to basically take out Hank Baskett. So I wasn’t worried about the ball. That’s why I dove at him. I wish I could’ve got a cleaner hit. But if it was just me throwing him off a little bit, that was my role.”
Reis: “We were surprised how well Hank played it. But I think Thomas’ kick was great because it was fast enough to hit off him and make it an awkward play. And I literally just remember the ball coming at me. So I did what any sane person would do, right? I just threw my hands and body at it and tried to hold on for dear life.”
Assistant special-teams coach Mike Mallory: “Golly, Chris looked like he had it. But it must’ve gone through his legs or whatever, because all of a sudden it’s a wild scrum.”
Morstead: “I always tell people the unsung hero of the play, without a doubt, is Jonathan Casillas. He ran all the way across the field and speared Hank. Chris had the ball between his legs, and [Baskett] made a play on it, and Jonathan just freakin’ smoked this dude. So that’s Coaches 101 teach tape, just rally to the ball.”
Casillas: “I was backside of the play, blocking cutoff. But as you know, that ball started bouncing around crazy. So I didn’t do my job at all. I just ran toward the bunch and dove in.”
Strief: “It was the longest pile in the history of football.”
Harper: “Sean was very smart about making sure it was on our sideline so no one else could come in.”
Referee Scott Green: “One of the things you try to do is make clear to the guys that, ‘We know who has the ball.’ And you say, ‘He’s got it, that’s it, that’s over.’ And frankly sometimes you do that before you actually know who has the ball — just to try to keep everybody from piling on. To this day I don’t know if the ball changed hands once or twice at the bottom of that pile, but finally one of the guys reached in and could feel the ball and could see that it was in possession of the Saints players.”
Reis: “I still get that question, ‘What happened underneath that pile?’ And I’ll joke around and say, ‘You don’t want to know.’ But in all honesty, I think I blacked it all out. It was so chaotic, it was so frantic, it was so crazy, it just felt like a truck was laying on top of me. And there was tugging and pulling. Nobody was doing anything dirty that I remember, but even if they did, I couldn’t have felt it because I was so focused on the ball. I think Jonathan Casillas had a part of it. I think Hank had a part of it at one point.”
Casillas: “I had it in my arms. I held that thing and I squeezed it and I didn’t let it go until I saw the last blue glove come off. Then I let go and Chris Reis had it. Honestly I didn’t realize the significance of not coming up with the ball and holding it like Chris Reis did. After I watched it over and over again, I was like, ‘Yo, why did you not stand up with the ball?’ There could’ve been a poster of me outside the Superdome.”
Glenn: “I can recall being down in the bottom of it the whole time, trying to get it, pulling fingers, pushing, just whatever I could do to get it. I think I remember touching it one time but not being able to grip it or grab it.”
Morstead: “I remember a few of the referees saying, ‘Blue ball, blue ball,’ like with a questioning kind of tone. And I’ll never forget Chris Reis from the bottom of the pile, ‘What are you talking about?! I have the ball in my hand! The ball is in my hand!'”
Reis: “I had my hand on it or hands on it the whole time. And I’ll admit, so did other people. That’s just the truth. And that’s why it took 63 seconds for them to figure out what they were gonna call. I wish they would have made a call a little bit sooner. But kudos to the refs, they didn’t want to get it wrong.”
Colts GM Bill Polian: “It was a very smart move by Sean Payton, especially considering the score and the time of the game. And it’s unfortunate that we didn’t handle it properly. We weren’t surprised by it, but chagrined that we didn’t handle it properly. And it absolutely [affected the momentum].”
Brackett: “It definitely was one of those shockers, like, ‘Oh s—.’ And then obviously they kind of went the other way and we had a hard time stopping them. And the craziest part is it shouldn’t have been a surprise for the special-teams coach because they went for it on fourth-and-1. So Sean Payton was gonna do anything at his disposal, you know what I’m saying? In my mind, ‘This dude wants to win.'”
The Saints’ offense took the field and scored their first touchdown six plays later. They wound up outscoring the Colts 25-7 in the second half for a 31-17 victory.
Brees: “I think just the level of confidence and belief that entered into our minds and our hearts at that point … ‘All right, now we’re gonna take this game over.’
Former Colts coach Jim Caldwell, to reporters in 2014: “That took a lot of guts in that particular game, in that particular situation, with that quarterback that we had on the other side. The ball bounced off one of our guys’ face mask and bounced out of his hands again, then the pileup, and we ended up losing it. So it could have really gone either way. You got to credit him. It was a great call, they got it, and it certainly had a lot to do with the outcome of the game.”
Payton: “Look, [the Colts] came back and scored on their next series as well. But we did steal a possession. And I’m gonna say from the time Peyton took his last snap in the second quarter to when he took his first snap in the third quarter, that was probably an hour and change. And it was important because it was our first touchdown, and then we kind of got going.”
Parcells: “I was happy that they did it — that it worked. And it did provide some impetus for them. That’s what those things are designed to do.”
Reis: “I’m gonna be honest, I don’t even know if it hits me today how big that play still is. Every now and then, even 10 years later, people will come up to me balling, crying, just saying, ‘Thank you.’ So it just reminds me of how big that play was.”
ESPN Indianapolis Colts reporter Mike Wells contributed to this report.