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Monday, November 30, 2015

Sean Payton's New Orleans Saints enter the wilderness

Posted By on Mon, Nov 30, 2015 at 1:59 PM

click to enlarge sean_payton_training_camp.jpg
Sean Payton at Saints training camp during better days.
WIKI MEDIA/CREATIVE COMMONS

So much for even temporary Allenmania.

Against the Houston Texans, the Saints' defense was actually a little bit better than it has been for much of the year. They held Houston quarterback Brian Hoyer to 7.4 yards per attempt, which is a lot better than the 8.8 the team has allowed as a whole. It wasn't enough, of course, as the talented Texans' defense mauled a Saints offense that consists of a quarterback and a running back and not much else.

The Saints just don't have many good football players right now. Their much-discussed $33 million in dead cap space seems as good an indicator of what they're dealing with as anything. The Saints have about 75 percent of a football team. They are like a college program on probation.

And it takes a lot of optimism to envision things getting a whole lot better any time soon.

For a fairly comprehensive view of how the Saints went from nascent dynasty to a facsimile of their dark ages selves, combine two lengthy articles. Read Katherine Terrell's story on the Rob Ryan era, which includes gems like this:
"Gregg was extremely talented, organized. He was on top of it. But ... the staff couldn't stand him," one source at the team's facility said. "They (Williams and Ryan) were the opposite skill sets. Two totally different birds. One's a defensive coordinator that's on it, but he'll just wear you out in the building. ... The other is well-liked, wants to please, friendly, all those things."
Then, if you're so inclined, skim my post on how Sean Payton's inability to manage defense ended his reign on top, from last year:
It might be too late. It’s been three years since that 49ers game, and the Saints have had a truly serious opportunity to contend in none of them, even 2013. Slammed so tightly against the salary cap even Loomis Math might not create space to breathe, with tens of millions invested in a defense so bad it’s making a few fans nostalgic for Spags, and with the offensive line that has protected Drew Brees the latest critical piece of his machine to age and wear out, Sean Payton may be approaching his Waterloo. Maybe he already had it. Maybe it happened on that Saturday in San Francisco.

After all, Napoleon’s last battle happened in 1815, but the guy didn’t die for another six years.
My point in bringing up these two posts is to emphasize that the Saints' failures aren't unprecedented or even particularly unexpected. They are the result of persistent mismanagement and front office/coaching staff leadership that has grown more desperate and erratic over time.

The seeds of failure were in place even during the now-legendary 2009-2011 run — those teams relied on the 2006 draft class, which was only sporadically supplemented by the ones that followed, leading to a consistent decline in talent, mostly on defense — but bad news began to coalesce almost as soon as Drew Brees connected with a rampaging Jimmy Graham on a 66 yard touchdown to take a late lead with a mere minute and a half remaining on that 2011 San Francisco game clock. The Saints' defense failed them, then Gregg Williams' existence ( and Roger Goodell's inanity) exploded in their face, and then everything began to go wrong and has continued to go wrong almost without reprieve.

The consistent thread in all the depressing action is Sean Payton's apparently increased role in every facet of the franchise. According to sources cited by Terrell, Payton began to meddle with Ryan's defense fairly early, insisting on a style of play similar to that of the departed Williams — and against Ryan's own tendencies. By 2014, Payton's meddling had led to wholesale changes in the system, Terrell's sources argue, and before 2015 the defense in place could likely most rightly be called Payton's, not Ryan's.

That's not to say Ryan wasn't part of the problem. Ryan has arguably failed as a defensive coordinator everywhere he's been one. Payton's meddling wasn't without justification. But the results of that meddling speak for themselves. 

The more involved Payton has been with the Saints' defense, the worse it has gotten. Now that the Saints have almost no talent on offense around Drew Brees, they can't even win when the defense is just regular bad, rather than awful, as it was this past Sunday in Houston.

To their credit, Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are proceeding according to a plan. They tried to beef up their offensive line by bringing in Max Unger, and they've tried to add talent to their defense. But the free agency signings — Brandon Browner — are failures, and the draft picks are just too young and too alone on the field to make a difference. 

Assuming Payton does return to the Saints in 2016 — not a certainty — the restocking plan will likely continue. The Saints will probably extend Drew Brees' contract to give them cap relief and keep him around while he's still productive, and will probably add new new pieces, once again, to their defense. The plan will continue apace. 

But Saints fans have no reason to believe the plan itself is any good. I've joked at times this year that the wild pace of the Saints' 2015 off-season made Sean Payton a sort of Captain Ahab figure. It's still a fun description of him. Payton's pursuit of something better than an awful defense resembles Ahab's pursuit of the white whale, and the results of Payton's expedition seem likely to be, in the end, about as successful.

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