As we count down to the NFL season, XN Sports will be bringing you 32 questions in 32 days. Each day, we’ll feature one of the most important questions for a different NFL team heading into the opening weekend of the league.
Today’s feature team and question?
New Orleans Saints: Will Sean Payton make a difference?
The New Orleans Saints have had tremendous success under head coach Sean Payton. He immediately went 10-6 in his first year as head coach with the franchise in 2006 and while his team took a step back in 2007, going 7-9, that was the only losing season he’s had in New Orleans. Payton won 37 games from 2009 – 2011, winning an elusive Super Bowl championship for the franchise in 2009.
With him at the helm, the Saints had been on an unbelievable roll that really began with Payton and franchise quarterback Drew Brees who came over from San Diego. That winning streak came to a screeching halt last year.
Fresh off of a 13-3 season in 2011, the Saints were hot under the investigation of the NFL for the now infamous bounty reward program run by the team. The league found New Orleans guilty of paying players to knock opponents out of the game and Payton was eventually suspended for the entire 2012 season.
Questions arose about how effective New Orleans could be without the leader, but with so many stars on offense, few could have predicted the disaster that followed. The Saints went from being one of the top teams in the NFL to one that missed the playoffs after a 7-9 campaign. There were several problems with the Saints, including 19 interceptions from quarterback Drew Brees – the second most he’s ever had in his career – and a non-existent running game. None was more notable, however, than the abysmal defense.
New Orleans’ defense was, well, offensive. In 2012, the Saints gave up a whopping 440 yards per game – far and away more than even the next to last team, the New York Giants (383 per game). To put that into perspective, New Orleans gave up approximately 175 yards more than the first-place Pittsburgh Steelers … every game. The Saints were also second to last in points per game (28.4) as well as total points (454), ranking behind only the Tennessee Titans. When you consider how bad the defense was, it’s actually pretty astonishing that the team still nearly finished .500.
The question now is if Payton’s mere presence will make that much of a difference.
It’s difficult to believe that a team can be so reliant upon a coach, but it also makes sense that having Payton back on the sidelines will help at least a little. The NFL is all about parity but for a 13-3 team to slide all the down to 7-9 despite having much of the same personnel is, frankly, weird. Some of it had to be attributed to the fact that New Orleans was relying heavily on interim coaches Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt. With two different styles, there’s little question that the players were never totally comfortable without Payton.
Things should be a bit better in 2013 with Payton back, but how much is really anybody’s guess. The defense is largely the same as 10 of the 11 starters were with the team last year. The only new face in the projected starting lineup is cornerback Keenan Lewis who was with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012. Lewis might help, but by himself, won’t come close to fixing the defensive deficiencies. With not much changing on defense, the Saints better hope they can simply win a lot of shootouts in 2013.
In the end, Payton should mean some modicum of improvement comes to New Orleans this year. What we don’t know, however, is if the team can return to dominance as they were before he left.