Sean Payton might have had the toughest coaching job in football this season, making his selection Saturday as The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year that much more impressive.

Payton, in his first year as a head coach, didn’t just lead the New Orleans Saints to a 10-6 record, the NFC South championship and a first-round playoff bye. He helped revitalize a battered city’s spirit. With New Orleans ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005, the Saints became nomads that year, winding up 3-13 under Jim Haslett. Payton, an assistant coach in Dallas, was hired to revive one of the NFL’s historically unsuccessful franchises.

Payton and his team gave the city – indeed, the entire Gulf Coast – something it desperately needed: a reason to smile.

And hopes for the Saints’ first Super Bowl appearance.

“It’s just been the right mix of guys who believe in each other,” said Payton, who ran away in the balloting by a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the NFL. “Players putting the team ahead of everything else. I think that’s the biggest thing that we’ve been able to do to date. That’s what’s most important. That’s what we were looking for in the offseason: character, toughness, those are things you win with.”

Payton received 44 votes in a season when there were a half-dozen outstanding coaching performances. Eric Mangini of the New York Jets, another first-year head coach, got three votes, while San Diego’s Marty Schottenheimer, the 2004 winner, received two. Jeff Fisher of Tennessee got one.

“I’m honored and somewhat humbled. This is a time in our league right now where there are probably seven or eight Hall of Fame coaches currently coaching in our league,” Payton said Saturday after learning of the award. “I still have tags hanging out of my Reebok gear on the sidelines.”

Broncos’ Williams laid to rest

FORT WORTH, Texas – With an overflow crowd packing the church, the Denver Broncos on Saturday filed past the open casket of Darrent Williams, the promising cornerback who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting on New Year’s Day.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was among those at Great Commission Baptist Church, which is not far from where the 24-year-old Willliams grew up. More than an hour before the service, the line to get inside the 2,500-seat church stretched around the building.

Among the honorary pallbearers were Broncos defensive backs Champ Bailey and John Lynch.

Williams was killed and two other passengers wounded when at least 14 shots were fired into a stretch Hummer that left a New Year’s Eve party at a nightclub. Williams was struck once in the neck.

Police have no suspects in the slaying in downtown Denver but did make an arrest Friday night of a man they want to question. Police won’t say whether they know the motive for the slaying but have said there was an altercation at the club.

Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, one of the funeral speakers, said bringing Williams’ killers to justice was his “No. 1 goal right now.”

“It is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” said Bowlen, whose mother died two weeks ago. “Looking back at Darrent’s career, the thing that’s really disturbing me is that we had a great young player and a player that was not only a great player on the field, he was a great guy off the field. And he was not just liked, but he was loved by his teammates.”

Denver coach Mike Shanahan also spoke at the service, which was open the public and expected to last three hours. A private graveside service was to follow.

Also at the church was Ashley Lelie, a former Broncos receiver who feuded with management over his contract before being traded to Atlanta last summer.

On Friday night, thousands of mourners filed past Williams’ open copper-colored casket during a two-hour memorial service.

Several mourners spoke at the visitation services, recounting how Williams never got bigheaded about his success and always tried to help others succeed, encouraging them to go to class, stay out of street gangs and make something of their lives.

Others said they would work to fulfill his dreams of starting sports camps for kids, especially in his South Fort Worth neighborhood.

“Down here, D is no superstar, D is ‘Little D,”‘ 25-year-old cousin Monte Wayne said. “Everybody respected Little D because everybody in the ‘hood wants to get out the ‘hood.

“Right now, we’re hurt. But at the same time, we know what it could have been. We know he’s got a good legacy, the two years he had in the NFL. Man, I’m just going to miss those Sundays. It’s just hard, bro.”

Williams is survived by a 7-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, who live in Fort Worth.

Another NFL player from Fort Worth, Thomas Herrion of the San Francisco 49ers, died after a preseason game at Denver in 2005 and is buried nearby.

AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver and Associated Press Writer Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth contributed to this report.

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