When Fox and Payton Talk, a Napkin Can Be Dangerous

On Friday nights during the football season, the families of John Fox and Sean Payton will gather at a New Jersey restaurant not far from Giants Stadium. The reservation requires a large table, with Fox's four children under the age of 13 and the Payton's 3- year-old daughter and infant son.

There is usually a lot of catching up to do, since this is the only chance for the kids and the wives to apprise Fox and Payton, the masterminds of the Giants' defensive and offensive stratagem, of all the things they don't know about the last week school news, youth sports results and major childhood milestones like a baby's first words or first steps.

Because the Giants coaches sometimes spend their weeknights sleeping on an office couch playbooks and video tapes piled up at their feet Fox and Payton relish the Friday nights with their families. It is their only night off each week in a season that stretches from July to December, or in the case of this season's Giants, through January. There's a kinship in the congregation since each family has had to abide by the quirky, nomadic conditions of a football coach's life.

But eventually in the course of the Friday dinners, the two coaches will surreptitiously shift seats at the table so they can get within earshot of each other, and one will say:

"So what are you going to try to do Sunday?"

For the previous five days, for 16 hours a day, Fox and Payton have been locked inside the same complex of offices at Giants Stadium and roamed the same practice field. But they have barely spoken.

Fox, the Giants' 45-year-old defensive coordinator, has been sitting in the defensive coaches' conference room, which is silent except for the whir of a projector and dark except for the football images on the big screen at the end of the room. Fox is searching for clues: weaknesses he can exploit.

Payton, the team's 37-year-old offensive coordinator, has been in the noisy and brightly lit offensive meeting room, where, as ringleader, he squiggles plays on a plastic board as the offensive staff shouts its critiques, pitches new ideas and suggests changes.

But all week, neither coach has discussed the details of the grand plan, at least not as they see it from their side of the line of scrimmage. Then at the Friday night dinner, at a moment when they hope their wives aren't looking, they will pull their chairs together.

"We'll talk a little shop," Fox said.

Payton has been known to start diagramming plays on the table cloth. Fox will reach for his pen and scratch his own lines, circles and arrows a football hieroglyphic that both coaches immediately understand. And if that exercise becomes a little too obvious to the rest of the dinner party, there have been times when the salt and pepper shakers, the sugar bowl, water glasses and silverware have suddenly become the pawns to simulate a play if you can visualize the 300-pound tackle Keith Hamilton as a napkin holder.

"We don't overdo it," Payton said. "Although our wives have a lot of patience with us, I have to admit that. But when you spend all week working on something, you want to bounce it off another coach. And for me, who better to ask about a new play then the guy who could probably stop it?"

As the Giants spend the rest of this week devising their offensive and defensive game plans for Super Bowl XXXV, there will never be more focus on the pregame scheming of Fox and Payton. With Coach Jim Fassel's assent, Fox and Payton will ultimately be the architects of the Giants' blueprint for defeating the Baltimore Ravens.

Late on the night of Jan. 28, when tortilla chips across America are getting stale and the onion dip has been double-dipped dry, Fox and Payton will either be hailed for their genius and foresight or blamed for their lack of prescience and intuition.

In the balance, Fox could well end up getting the head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills, based on how well he stops the Ravens next week. Or Fox's counterpart, the Baltimore defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis, could get the job because of his success against Payton. Payton's rising star could take off anew, a Super Bowl success making him a budding Fassel or Brian Billick.

Not bad for two guys who came to the Giants as little-known assistants. Fox wasn't even in the National Football League when Fassel appointed him the defensive coordinator in 1997.

Fox's ascent up the coaching ladder followed a conventional pattern until 1996, when he was beginning his third season as the defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders' defenses under Fox had been among the league's best for two seasons but the 1996 preseason had gotten off to a rocky start and in an organizational meeting one day at training camp, the Oakland owner, Al Davis, started riding Fox hard.

Fox never discusses the day, but others present at the meeting have told the story. Davis keeps up his salty, caustic criticism and Fox finally stands and answers back. Just as forcefully. And as salty.

The Foxes had just moved into a new home, and Fox's wife, Robin, was unpacking boxes when the telephone rang.

"It was John and he said to me: `Robin, don't freak out. I just quit my job. I'll be home in an hour,' " Robin said, describing the day in a 1997 interview. "Of course, I totally freaked out."

The Foxes moved back to St. Louis, where Robin's parents lived, and John took a scouting job with the Rams. When the Giants hired Fassel, who coached with Fox in Oakland and knew the lay of the land there, it took Fassel less than a week to name Fox his defensive coordinator.

"I knew what I was getting," Fassel said. "A great, thinking coach."

Payton arrived as a quarterbacks coach, recommended by the Giants' defensive line coach, Denny Marcin. "I told Jim that Payton was a sharp offensive mind who would some day be a head coach in the N.F.L.," Marcin said.

Payton had been with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he had immediately impressed another assistant coach with the team, the current Oakland head coach, Jon Gruden, who was Philadelphia's offensive coordinator. Gruden, the story goes, hadn't been consulted on the hiring of Payton and was taciturn around his new coach.

Anticipating their first day of work together, Gruden gruffly told Payton, "Well, we start watching film here at 6 a.m."

When Gruden arrived at the Eagles' offices the next morning, he found Payton waiting with coffee and doughnuts alongside a table stacked with videotapes, which Payton had been watching for more than an hour already. Gruden, won over, discovered he had a new, equally thorough ally.

This week, Fox and Payton will design the biggest game plan of their football lives, the franchise's undefeated Super Bowl record in their hands. And if they stay on their routine, Friday night next week might bring the biggest pregame dinner of them all.

At some restaurant in Tampa, Fla., they have no idea the most unlikely Super Bowl role their silverware and table settings may soon take on. 1/17/01