During the offseason, it was popular to argue about the return of head coach Sean Payton.
The New Orleans Saints were 7-9 in 2012, but that lowly finish was recorded while Payton was on a year-long suspension. With Payton back this season, how many extra wins would his presence provide solely because he was on the sideline?
One? Two? Could Payton returning to the Saints in 2013 possibly be worth three wins to the team?
Payton wasn’t the only prominent “new” coach on staff in New Orleans. Upon his return, Payton announced the Saints' desire to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive scheme. A little more than two weeks after Payton told the world New Orleans was moving to a 3-4, the Saints announced the hiring of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Bringing Ryan on board was a splashy hire, to say the least. But no one was truly aware just how much of a difference he would make on the defensive side of the football.
Through the first quarter of the season, New Orleans is a perfect 4-0. The Saints offense is humming, ranked No. 7 in the NFL and averaging 27 points per game. Its defense is ranked fifth, giving up just 13.8 points per game.
While it’s an extremely good question to ponder, it’s impossible not to wonder: Which coaching addition is more important to the success of the franchise this season, Payton on offense or Ryan on defense?
Payton’s return has revitalized the offense
I truly believe the return of Payton to the sideline this season will be worth two, possibly three wins to the Saints.
Not only is Payton a brilliant in-game tactician, but his presence inside the building during the week leading up to game day is nothing short of amazing.
Darren Sproles, who was frustrated by a heavy dose of bracket coverage last year, said the reason he and others are having more success this year is because Payton knows what he’s seeing on the field and what to exploit.
Others credit Payton for his strength as a motivator and his ability to put the focus on what matters most in each game. More than anything, I think it’s clear they’ve regained their confidence, that they know Payton will put them in a position to win, whether they’re jumping to early leads or coming from behind late.
The remarkable turnaround from 0-4 at this point last season to 4-0 right now is the easiest indicator to focus upon. But the Saints are also better on offense with more points per game in 2013, more yards per game, a better third-down conversion rate and are penalized much less with Payton around than when he was gone.
Quarterback Drew Brees also looks more comfortable with Payton back. While his touchdown and interception totals at the four-game mark are similar—he has the same touchdown passes (10) as he did at this point last season and has thrown one less interception (four) in 2013 than the five from 2012—Brees is competing a far better percentage of his passes.
Brees’ 66.9 percent completion rate far exceeds last season’s 57.6 percent mark at this point of the season.
Ryan has created a new attitude on defense
Everyone expected Ryan to improve the Saints on defense from last season, where this unit gave up more yards (7,042) than any defense in the history of the NFL. No one expected Ryan to have this much of an impact.
The Saints have shaved over 100 yards per game off their total given up to opponents and moved from the league worst to No. 6 in the NFL. New Orleans has also allowed approximately 52 percent fewer points to be scored by opposing offenses.
As great as slowing down opponents has been for New Orleans, Ryan’s biggest achievements might be in the aggressive play of the defense. The Saints are averaging almost double the number of sacks per game this season and almost one more takeaway on defense. Ryan’s unit gets to the quarterback and forces turnovers at a much better rate than the 2012 defense from a year ago.
The edge in this friendly competition has to go to Ryan. He’s done more of an improvement job on the defense than Payton has done to the offense, or the team as a whole. But neither coach loses when you compare which one is more responsible for turning the Saints from a frustrated powder keg at 0-4 last season to Super Bowl contenders at 4-0 in 2013.
The real winners are, however, the team itself and its fanbase. Both are equally happy with the addition of Ryan and the return of Payton.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.