Keeping the Faith

Demoted Payton finds role to play

erage Of course there was some awkwardness at first. The Giants' quarterbacks, with whom Sean Payton works most closely, weren't sure what to say or how to act.

Payton had been demoted - swiftly, publicly and much to his surprise. But he still had a job to do, as did everyone else on a 3-4 team, so there was not much time for sympathy.

"Then I figured it's like a [player] losing a starting job or something," backup quarterback Jesse Palmer said. "There's a small time period where it's awkward, but he has been incredible, and I think we haven't skipped a beat at all."

Starter Kerry Collins said, "He's been disappointed, obviously, but he hasn't changed the way he's coached or his commitment to the Giants or us as players. He wants us to do well, and it's apparent in the way he's coaching."

After calling the Giants' plays since late in 1999, including a time in 2000 when he was being touted as a rising head coaching candidate, Payton was stripped of that duty by coach Jim Fassel one month ago today. It happened the day after a 17-3 loss to the Eagles that left the team with seven offensive touchdowns in seven games.

Most players supported the move, believing it was time for a change, regardless of whether Payton was at fault. Payton, who was enduring a difficult time personally because of the death of his mother, Jeanne, on Oct. 18, did not agree. But he vowed to be professional and not lash out publicly.

Payton never has, even as his image took a further beating during the three-game winning streak that followed Fassel's decision. The attack appeared more crisp, confident and efficient than it had since 2000. The offense still was the one Payton had painstakingly installed during the past three years, and in which he still takes pride, but Fassel had eliminated most shifting and personnel changes.

"We're still running the same plays Sean had," tight end Dan Campbell said. "It's the same offense. It's just the emphasis on certain things that changed."

After scoring seven TDs in the first two games under Fassel, the offense has three in the past two games, including Sunday's 16-14 loss to the Texans. Still, that is better than the pace through seven games.

Might Payton have done things differently? "I'd rather not comment on that," he said before the Texans game. "I do have strong beliefs and convictions. But the thing I like most is we're winning games, Kerry is playing well, the line is doing well, the running game is working."

So what does a coordinator/quarterbacks coach with no plays to call do during games? (Payton is not alone in that category; Fassel is one of many head coaches who calls plays.) He coordinates communication between the position coaches and relays information to Fassel. Between series, he talks to players about adjustments, especially the quarterbacks.

During the week, Payton is involved in planning, although Fassel spends more time in those meetings than he did before. "I'm not privy to [game-plan meetings]," Collins said, "but you see Sean's flavor and influence when you get the game plan Tuesday night over the fax."

Fassel said Payton has handled himself well, but it appears their relationship has not fully recovered from the infamous sideline pass late in the first half of the Sept. 29 game against the Cardinals, which was returned for a touchdown. Payton wanted to take a knee; Fassel wanted to take a shot.

Payton is under contract through 2003, but he and the team might agree to part ways after this season. In the meantime, he is here to win.

"He's been great," Campbell said. "Even if he's not feeling good about things, you can't tell. He's into it. He wants to win."

Palmer said, "He still coaches the heck out of Kerry, Jason [Garrett] and myself. He's really upbeat on the sideline. He's been great."

Said Payton: "In this league, it's hard to win. The focus any player or coach takes is: 'Whatever it takes for the Giants to be successful is the right approach.' That's no different for me or anyone else."
Nov. 29, 02