Is Sean Payton Ready For the Changes He Needs to Make?


The Saints organization made news recently with the announcement of three quality hires to their coaching staff for the 2016 season; but as many Saints fans will be very quick to tell you: it’s the ones that haven’t been made for quite sometime now — the ones that Saints head coach Sean Payton needs to make that haven’t been made — that they want to see most as a true sign that Payton is “all in” on improving the team and making it better.

The question then becomes: Is Sean Payton WILLING to make them?

Or — is what appears to be his undying loyalty to his long-time lieutenants, continuing to hinder the team’s chances at accomplishing the very goal the Saints seek: of improving the overall quality of every aspect of the football team?

We all can appreciate the values of friendship, particularly with people near and dear to us with whom we’ve forged long-time relationships with over the years — some even who we have may known since we were growing up together from the days when we were just little kids.

But when friendships are mixed with business, sometimes it can cloud our judgment.

Jan 6, 2016; Metairie, LA, USA; Sean Payton talks to the media after announcing he will remain as the head coach for the New Orleans Saints during a press conference at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

And in the case of Sean Payton, that appears to be the case.

Among the coaching changes that were announced last week that included hiring former Miami Dolphins interim head coach Dan Campbell as the new assistant head coach/tight ends, former All-Pro CB and Browns assistant secondary coach Aaron Glenn as the new defensive backs coach, and re-hiring former QB coach Joe Lombardi back to his old role following a two-year stint as the Detroit Lions offensive coordinator, the ones that Saints fans have been waiting YEARS for, were not announced.

And one suspects, that’s simply because Payton just doesn’t have it in his heart to make them — even though everyone including himself, knows that they need to be made.

Those changes are long-time assistant head coach / linebackers coach Joe Vitt, special teams coach Greg McMahon, and defensive line coach Bill Johnson.

Vitt was hired by the Saints on January 27, 2006 to serve as their assistant head coach/linebackers coach, nine days after Payton was hired as the 10th full-time head coach of the Saints.

He was the very first coaching assistant that Payton added to his staff (which speaks to how much he respects Vitt and values their relationship both on and off the field), and assuming that he returns for the 2016 season, Vitt would be in his 11th season with the organization.

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The some-times fiery Vitt has been in the NFL for over three decades now and has literally just about “seen it all”, and he has been an extremely valuable member of the Saints organization during his run in New Orleans.

Never was Vitt more valuable than in 2012, when he served in the capacity of interim head coach during the 2012 “Bountygate” season; and leading the Saints franchise through what was one of the organization’s toughest times in its 49-year history.

For that, Vitt can never be thanked enough.

Jan 23, 2013; Mobile AL, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt scouting the Senior Bowl north squad practice a day after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (not pictured) reinstated New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton after his season long suspension. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

It was an act that required a great degree of courage, and Vitt never wavered once during that entire time — leading the Saints valiantly through a very dark period when it seemed that the entire sports world was against them.

And if you ever wondered how much the Saints respect Vitt, one has to look no further then after the win over Indianapolis, when the team presented Vitt with the game ball in the post-game locker room, and then carried him up the stairs of the team plane after he had suffered a previous leg injury while chasing would-be robbers outside of his suburban Metairie home back in early October.

The Saints players LOVE Joe Vitt. That much is indisputable.

But as far as coaching linebackers? That’s another story altogether.

It’s exceedingly difficult to find one — just ONE — linebacker in his now 11 years with the team, that you can say that he has “developed” into a quality starting linebacker in his tenure.

Of course, they may have all changed this past season after the Saints drafted two quality linebackers in rookies Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha. Both Anthony and Kikaha made significant contributions to the team in their respective rookie seasons, and by all accounts they both appear to be quality players who will be the core of the Saints defense for years to come.

But was their success due to overwhelming talent, or due to Vitt’s guidance? One suspects that it’s the former, not the latter.

Then there is special teams coach Greg McMahon.

Nov 8, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints punt returner Marcus Murphy and special teams coordinator Greg McMahon before a game against the Tennessee Titans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It’s actually very easy to understand why Payton and Mc Mahon are very close. That’s because he and McMahon are friends dating back to college, when both played together as teammates at Eastern Illinois in the early 1980’s.

Payton was Eastern Illionois’ quarterback, while McMahon was one of the team’s defensive backs.

But whether they’re old college buddies or not, one would have to assume that Payton realizes that after 9 seasons (2016 would be his 10th season) that McMahon — with the exception of the opening 2nd half onside kick that helped the Saints win the Super Bowl in 2009 — hasn’t done a whole lot to say that he still deserves to have a job at this point.

If this were anywhere else in the NFL, McMahon would be unemployed right now — plain and simple.

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The Saints kick return unit has been virtually non-existent under McMahon’s hand, save for a few seasons with Darren Sproles retuning punts and kicks, and a punt return for a TD by rookie Marcus Murphy early last season at Carolina. Otherwise, the kick return game has been abysmal.

And kickers? Let’s not even go there. That’s laughable, as evidenced by the fact that the Saints are on their 11th kicker in the Sean Payton Era. But given that NFL kickers are in their own strange and unique little world, maybe McMahon gets a ‘pass’ on that one.

Of course, if it was his input that convinced Payton to select former kicker Zach Hocker — who was released after six games — over Dustin Hopkins (now the Redskins kicker) in Training Camp last year, then would imagine that Payton should give his old college pal McMahon a pink slip on his way to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to catch the next flight out of town.

And last but certainly not least, there’s defensive line coach Bill Johnson.

May 29, 2014; Metairie, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson during offseason team activities at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson, a Monroe native, was brought in to New Orleans as defensive line coach in 2009 (the same year that former Saints and current Rams defensive coordinator Greg Williams was hired), as part of the post-Gary Gibbs defensive coaching staff overhaul.

But since that time in 7 full seasons, the Saints defense has ranked near the bottom of the NFL in overall yards allowed; and even more notably in total sacks — where in just the last two seasons (2014 and 2015), the Saints defense has ranked 25th overall at getting to the opponent’s quarterback.

To be completely fair to Johnson, that’s mostly in part due to an overwhelming lack of talent (except for Cam Jordan) and poor quality depth.

But as we all know: the National Football League is about getting results, and in the case of Johnson — and also with Vitt and McMahon as well — the results say that all three of these men have NOT gotten the job done.

It’s as simple as that.

Which of course, leads us right back to where we started from.

And that is: Is Sean Payton willing to make the changes he needs to make?

Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton on the sideline during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. The Texans defeated the Saints 24-6. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

There’s that old saying: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

If Sean Payton isn’t willing to finally put business over friendship, it’s very likely that those results won’t be what either he — or Saints fans — are hoping to get…….