When the NFL agreed to let head coach Sean Payton return to the New Orleans Saints a few weeks early from his year-long suspension he didn’t waste time making a decision to cut ties with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Replacing Spagnuolo, however, is a decision Payton and the Saints aren’t rushing.
The Saints are almost two weeks into their search for a new coordinator, and there are plenty of names floating around. Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith and former Kansas City Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel are early favorites around the rumor mill. So is former Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini.
While the Saints likely will consider all three of those candidates, the reason why the search to replace Spagnuolo has been slow and methodical might be because New Orleans had to wait for a candidate to complete his coaching duties at the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has had one heck of a run in his position with the 49ers. There are many reasons why he would fit right into the New Orleans coaching staff.
When Payton announced Spagnuolo’s firing, he also announced a new direction for the Saints on defense.
“Philosophically we are changing our defense to a 3-4 alignment,” said Payton in a press release. “And right now is the best time to accomplish this transition.”
Tomsula is a dedicated 3-4 guy and has been running the defensive line of one of the best 3-4 fronts in the business. But San Francisco’s front four wasn’t quite so stout before Tomsula came to the 49ers.
Tomsula spent nine seasons coaching in NFL Europe before taking his current position in San Francisco in 2007. Almost immediately after his arrival, the 49ers began to flourish on defense.
In 2006—the year before Tomsula—San Francisco ranked 19th against the run. Tomsula’s first year was a step back to a No. 22 rank in the NFL, but from then on teams found it difficult to run against the 49ers. The rapid improvement has been capped over the past two seasons by top five run defenses.
The same skyrocketing improvement was made by the 49ers in yards and points given up.
The 49ers just finished the 2012 season where they ranked third in the NFL after giving up just 4,710 yards (remember the Saints gave up 7,042 last year under Spagnuolo). They ranked second by allowing just 17.1 points per game.
Back in 2006, the 49ers ranked 26th and dead last in yardage given up and opponents’ points per game. That’s a stellar improvement that Tomsula played a huge role in creating.
Tomsula has also played in a big role in player development in San Francisco. It was Tomsula who convinced the 49ers to draft defensive end Ray McDonald in 2007 and sign Justin Smith as a free agent in 2008. McDonald and Smith bookend an incredible defensive line and both rank in the top 10 in the NFL among 3-4 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus.
Defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga was moved to the nose tackle position on advisement from Tomsula. Sopoaga isn’t nearly on the level of McDonald and Smith, but he’s been a consistent run-stuffer in the middle.
The Saints are going to need a defensive coordinator with an eye for finding the right positional fit for players currently on the roster. Can guys like Cam Jordan continue to grow in a new 3-4 scheme? Can Akiem Hicks flourish as a nose tackle? How do the Saints move forward with Junior Galette, Martez Wilson and Jonathan Casillas?
Tomsula was faced with similar questions early on in San Francisco and made the right personnel choices. He was also integral in helping to turn around a 49ers defense.
Right now, what the Saints need is for their defense to be turned around completely. Tomsula can do just that.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.