After serving a one-year suspension for his role in the bounty scandal, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton returns to try to lead New Orleans to the playoffs after a disappointing 7-9 finish in his absence.
It was a strange season for the Saints in many ways. Maybe this was destiny given the last few teams hosting the Super Bowl (Indianapolis and Dallas) had such poor years, too.
Drew Brees became the first quarterback to ever pass for over 5,000 yards and 40 touchdown passes in consecutive seasons, yet he and the offense struggled to make a lot of timely plays.
The defense was also prolific for all the wrong reasons in that it is the first in NFL history to allow 7,000 yards in a season.
The Saints looked to be out of the playoff race early, starting 0-4, which included an 18-point blown lead at home to the Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City finished 2-14. The 34-14 defeat in Denver was arguably the worst offensive performance by the Saints since 2006.
Even after crawling back to 5-5, three games against stiff competition (49ers, Falcons and Giants) stifled the offense as Brees threw nine interceptions in those contests. That dropped the Saints to 5-8, which all but ended their playoff hopes.
When you watched the 2012 Saints play, there were no shortages of yards and points. Their games included a NFL-record 13,616 yards of total offense. The 915 combined points ranks fourth in NFL history behind the 2000 Rams (1,011), 2011 Packers (919) and 2004 Chiefs (918).
With a deep division and conference, the Saints’ path back to glory cannot be solved by just Payton’s return. There are problems rooted deeper than the coaching situation from last year.
However, Payton is one of the best coaches in the game and should help the team improve right away.
Departures and Arrivals: The 2013 Saints
Normally with a 2013 team preview, we would look at the areas of concern before reviewing the roster changes that could help fix those problems. With the Saints, their big changes really come on the coaching staff, so we start with a look at the players.
As always, credit to Ourlads with help in creating this chart of potential 2013 starters:
All key offensive players return from last season. The big difference is at left tackle after Jermon Bushrod left in free agency to Chicago.
This leaves fourth-year man Charles Brown with the job. He has eight career starts, though at least Brees is a quarterback who will get rid of the ball quickly. The Saints won a Super Bowl with Bushrod at left tackle after he had no career starts before 2009, so trust them to make this work.
The Saints also drafted offensive tackle Terron Armstead in the third round this year, so he could be in the cards this season should someone struggle.
Running back Chris Ivory was traded to the New York Jets, but the Saints still have a talented trio with versatility (Pierre Thomas), power (Mark Ingram) and a receiving threat (Darren Sproles).
Long-time receiver Devery Henderson is gone, but the Saints still have one of the most underrated players in the league in Marques Colston as the No. 1 receiver.
Tight end Jimmy Graham has turned into a superstar, while the team also signed veteran Ben Watson to contribute. Do not forget about Lance Moore and do not sleep on second-year receiver Joe Morgan, who averaged 37.9 yards per reception on 10 catches last year.
Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills was drafted in the fifth round, so the depth at this position is fine. Brees can bring out the best in his receivers with his accuracy.
The changes come on defense with the switch to the 3-4. Rookie third-round pick John Jenkins expects to take over as the nose tackle. Victor Butler has come over from Dallas while long-time defensive end Will Smith will move to outside linebacker.
After allowing a league-worst 14 pass plays of 40-plus yards in 2012, the Saints drafted Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro with their first-round pick. He should step in immediately as a starter.
The other big move in the secondary was signing away young cornerback Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh. With 2010 first-round pick Patrick Robinson being a disappointment, look for Lewis to step up quickly on this depth chart.
In the end, it’s a very talented offensive roster with several high draft picks on defense that need to start producing.
Sean Payton: The Tall Glass of Water for the Offense’s Hiccups
With their usual offensive pieces in place last season, the Saints looked like a machine, but things just did not run right without the oil that is offensive wizard Sean Payton. Due to his suspension, he could not have any contact with the team for the entire season.
Now that he’s back, it really does seem that simple that the offense will return to being prolific and efficient. The former was there last year, while the latter did not show up nearly enough.
Since Payton joined with Drew Brees in 2006, the two have developed one of the league’s best connections between a coach and quarterback, leading to an all-out assault on the offensive record books.
Since 2006, Brees has passed for 33,571 yards and 244 touchdowns. That is a great career for many quarterbacks, but that is just the last seven seasons for Brees.
However, 2012 proved Payton and Brees are not in fact telekinetically connected. After one of the best seasons ever by a quarterback in 2011, Brees started very slowly without Payton.
After gaining some traction under the difficult interim coach situation, Brees’ season practically fell apart when he threw two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a home loss to the 49ers. Four days later in a crucial game in prime time in Atlanta, Brees threw a career-high five interceptions in a 23-13 loss. This was followed by a 52-27 loss against the Giants.
In those three losses, the defense actually held each opponent under 400 yards, which is something it failed to do in 12 games last season.
Yet that was the story of the Saints’ season. They could never really get the offense and defense playing well together outside of a 41-0 blowout win over Tampa Bay, which oddly enough followed the three-game losing streak.
In 2012, the Saints were 7-2 when they scored at least 28 points; 0-7 when scoring fewer than 28 points.
Brees threw 19 interceptions last season. Though his interception percentage (2.84 percent) is good, teams still only get a limited number of drives during a game. He needs to cut back on the turnovers in 2013.
In the past when Brees has had a season below his standards (2007 and 2010), he returned with a better performance. That should happen again in 2013 with what is still a loaded offensive cast.
Payton can correct the mistakes that may have gone unnoticed or unsolved by less-talented eyes last year. The offense will be better, but if the Saints are to get back to a Super Bowl, the defense has to make a bigger leap forward.
Last year the Saints offense ranked 31st in starting field position (23.97), according to Football Outsiders. That can be traced back to a defense not getting enough takeaways and allowing too many scores, which now often set up a kickoff and touchback due to the new rule.
Payton has been a bit of a modern-day Don Coryell, with the passing game always so productive, but the defense often allowing opponents to match scores.
We know the Saints will score, but will it be enough with this defense?
Rob Ryan: The Clint Howard to Rex’s Ron Howard
Rob Ryan, son of defensive legend Buddy and twin brother of Jets head coach Rex, is the man now in charge of turning around this Saints defense.
It is a defense that set NFL records for futility by allowing 7,042 yards and 12 games with at least 400 yards.
Buddy’s sons have had a lot to say in the NFL, but have yet to really “walk the walk” as well. Rex did at least coach in three consecutive AFC Championship Games, losing with the Ravens as a defensive coordinator (2008) and as the Jets head coach (2009-10).
So Rex has had some success, while Rob has yet to be a head coach. With his shaggy hair and shady track record, this Ryan brother is like the Clint Howard (odd-looking actor brother of director/actor Ron Howard) of the Ryan family.
Rounding to the nearest whole number, Ryan has coached the 23rd-best defense in the NFL in terms of yards, points and takeaways while his teams have produced a record of 46-98 (.319).
If Ryan were a head coach, he may be considered the worst in the league with not a single winning season in nine attempts for three franchises.
So in converting the Saints to a 3-4 defense after a disastrous 2012, why hire someone with such a history of failure?
However, the Cowboys did blow quite a few fourth-quarter leads the last two years under Ryan’s watch. His 2011-12 Cowboys allowed eight game-winning drives. The Wade Phillips-era Cowboys (2007-10) only allowed six game-winning drives (nine if you count Jason Garrett’s games as interim coach in 2010.
Some will point to the 2006 season in Oakland as proof Ryan can coach a defense at a high level. It’s the best season in Ryan’s career in terms of allowing the fewest yards and points per drive.
However, that Oakland offense was so bad it actually statistically benefited the defense’s No. 3 ranking in yards per drive.
In 2006, the Raiders defense started their average drive at the 35.04. Not only was that the worst in the league, but it is the second-worst average starting field position for any defense since 2004. Only the 2007 Ravens (35.12) were worse.
When a defense has many short fields to work with, that can help deflate the number of yards they allow. The true value of Ryan’s 2006 defense is somewhere between that No. 3 (yards) and No. 19 (points) ranking.
Even then that’s just one 2-14 season in nine years, and the Raiders still struggled to generate takeaways, which has been a common theme in all of Ryan’s defenses outside of the 2010 Browns.
Brees actually helped Ryan’s cause that year with an unorthodox four-interception performance in a stunning 30-17 loss. Games like that one and holding the mighty New England machine to 14 points (2010) or sacking Ben Roethlisberger eight times in 2009 in prime time have probably helped Ryan continue to get jobs in the league.
Overall, his results have not warranted it.
Not long ago the Saints moved on from a similar situation with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was at the center of the bounty scandal. His career was filled with mediocrity, but at least he had some great results for the 2000 Titans, his work as a head coach in Buffalo and the 2009 Super Bowl-winning Saints.
That season the Saints did not have a shut-down defense, but they generated 39 takeaways, played well against top quarterbacks and Tracy Porter had huge interceptions in the playoffs against Brett Favre and Peyton Manning.
Ryan has coached some of the worst defenses in NFL history when it comes to creating interceptions. Here is a look at the 10 lowest single-season interception percentages for a defense in NFL history*.
*Note: the 1982 Houston Oilers would rank No. 3 with three interceptions on 284 attempts (1.06 percent), but were excluded given it was a nine-game strike season.
Perhaps it’s fitting that Williams and Ryan each make the list twice. Williams was the defensive coordinator for the 2006 Redskins and 2011 Saints.
For Ryan, his 2005 Raiders had the second-lowest interception percentage in NFL history, while last year’s performance in Dallas was the seventh worst.
If you are giving up so many yards and not taking the ball away, that’s going to put points on the board, which is why most of these teams did not have winning records.
The Saints are not unlike their division-rival Buccaneers, who allowed the third-most gross passing yards (4,951) in NFL history last year. The Saints were No. 4 with 4,875 yards allowed.
Unlike Tampa Bay, the Saints were torn apart on the ground as well, allowing a league-worst 2,361 rushing yards and 5.17 yards per carry.
There will be no Darrelle Revis to the rescue for this Ryan in New Orleans, though Keenan Lewis should be a good addition at cornerback. Vaccaro may be able to stop some of the big plays down the field.
Beyond that, there’s a lot of pressure put on rookie nose tackle John Jenkins to perform at that critical position. Cameron Jordan, 2011’s first-round pick, had 8.0 sacks last season and can play multiple positions.
Ryan brings Butler with him from Dallas, though he just tore his ACL this week, already ending his season before it started.
Either way, Butler was nothing like bringing DeMarcus Ware. For a 3-4 defense to be successful, you usually need a stud outside linebacker to rush the quarterback.
Will Smith, a 4-3 defensive end who turns 32 in July, will be expected to take that role.
We just watched Dwight Freeney leave Indianapolis after not being the same player in a scheme change to the 3-4 under Chuck Pagano. It is not one of the easier transitions in the NFL. Things will likely fall on Jordan’s shoulders to be the best pass-rusher on the defense.
Also, part of the problem statistically for the Saints is the post-2011 era with longer fields and a record number of passing attempts. Even then, New Orleans hemorrhaged yards in 2012 in a way no defense in NFL history has before.
Here is a look at the 10 worst seasons ever in terms of yards allowed by a defense:
Excluding the 2012-13 Saints, these teams went from allowing an average of 6,472 yards to 5,583 yards the following season. They went from winning 38.9 percent of their games to 45.2 percent the following season.
If you believe in trends, the last seven teams who failed to make the playoffs did not make them again the following year as well. The only teams that did repeat the playoffs are the 2011 Patriots and 2011 Packers.
While Brees is capable of leading a team to the playoffs without a great defense, if it’s another performance like last year or a typical Rob Ryan defense then the Saints too will miss out on the postseason again.
With someone like Ryan being put to the task of rebuilding a historically bad defense, changing the scheme to a 3-4, history does not seem to bode well for instant success.
Any success would be the first of Ryan’s career as he enters his 10th season under this job title.
Conclusion: Deep NFC Will Be Rough on Saints
The NFC South could be the most competitive division in football. Atlanta remains a tough team and Tampa Bay should be better. Even Carolina usually gives opponents a competitive game and the Panthers actually swept New Orleans last year.
Expectations are definitely for more than seven wins for New Orleans, but do not expect the 13-3 domination they displayed in 2011.
Sure, Brees could easily throw for 5,000 yards again, but should Saints fans really want that?
When a team plays better defense and more efficient offense, the need to throw lessens as the game wears on and the lead is increased. Instead, it can just hand the ball off and drain the clock for the win.
Another year with 650-plus pass attempts from Brees likely means the Saints are still struggling to control games beyond any method outside of the pass.
Remember, the leader in passing yards is 0-47 when it comes to winning a Super Bowl.
The offense is going to play better this season, but it is hard to imagine the defense will figure things out so quickly in year one under a defensive coordinator who has never coached success.
As the Saints have proven, a defense that relies on takeaways is not sustainable. It worked through the playoffs in 2009, but in every other season of the Payton era, the Saints have either failed to make the playoffs (with a defense ranked 25th or worse in points allowed), or they allowed at least 36 points in a playoff loss.
The 2013 Saints may win 10 games and make the playoffs, but the problems on defense will be too much to overcome for this team to matter in January.
On the bright side, the Bountygate punishments are over and one of the best coaches in the league is back on the job. With Payton and one of the top quarterbacks in the game reunited, there’s at least an opportunity for greatness again in New Orleans.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.