When you saw the word “reputation”, did you think I meant the New Orleans Saints defense itself?
Well not really.
I was actually referring to the the reputation that comes along with being the defensive coordinator for the team, or more specifically for head coach Sean Payton.
NOLA.com Saints beat writer Larry Holder joked recently in an interview on WWL 870 AM that Payton tried to “save face” by firing former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan midway through the 2015 season so instead of having five defensive coordinators in eight years, it was “five defensive coordinators in 8 1/2 years”.
Payton was also smart in doing it before the holidays too — so that way he didn’t have to buy Christmas gifts for him.
Nov 8, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton on the sidelines in the second half of their game against the Tennessee Titans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Titans won, 34-28, in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
But on a somewhat serious note, the track record for longevity as a defensive coordinator for the Saints ranks right up there with Payton’s patience for kickers.
As in: not very long.
"I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputationI’ve never been afraid of any deviationAn’ I don’t really care if you think I’m strange I ain’t gonna changeAn’ I’m never gonna care ’bout my bad reputationOh no, not me, oh no, not meJoan Jett and the Blackhearts – 1983"
The big question moving forward is can the newly crowned one in Dennis Allen; change not only the defense for the better, but stick around long enough to embed a true culture at the coordinator position that seems to rise and fall like the tide?
Back in 2009, everyone was caught off guard by the Saints defense and how they attacked opposing offenses with not only their mainstay players, but ones that they had signed as free agents who weren’t as flashy by some standards.
Then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams changed the mindset of the defensive unit by preaching an attacking and aggressive style of play that was meant to constantly keep the other team on their heels.
I mean for heavens sake, the guy was showing the defense footage of lions and eagles hunting and killing their prey and telling them that’s how they were meant to play, when the ball was snapped.
For someone like myself that thinks that is how the game should be played, then you can insert the ‘Bill Hader intense popcorn eating GIF’ right here.
Jan 14, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) after the game against the San Francisco 49ers at 3Com Park. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, 36-32. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmonson-US PRESSWIRE
But Williams’ run lasted only three years with a heartbreaking defensive swan song in the 2011 NFC playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers, and an exit that was marred even more by the Bountygate scandal a few months later in early 2012.
Even in the 2009 Super Bowl season, you could see the relationship between Payton and Williams deteriorating somewhat due to situations that began developing in the weeks leading up to the Saints’ Super Bowl appearance.
Williams famously said that the defense was going to give then-Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning some “remember me” shots during the Super Bowl XLIV contest; to which Payton responded by sending Williams a jar of peanut butter, crackers, and a glass of sand at a brunch to encourage him to be quiet.
Fast forward to the brief stint with Steve Spagnuola in 2012 and the hot start-turned-crash and burn with Ryan, and all of a sudden it looks like Allen may be in a bit over his head.
But —- there is a noticeable difference, albeit a slight one, that may be going in Allen’s favor.
The past three defensive coordinators all had “their way” of doing things in one way or another.
Williams of course was Williams in not only a brash way, but one that threatened the control and order of operations that Payton has over the team.
Nov 9, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams reacts against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Rams 31-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
It was painted infamously in the “rouge coach” defense that Payton and the others tried to use in their Bountygate defense, that Williams had ‘gone off the rails’ and did things on his own in a secretive black-ops manner.
I don’t think Payton wasn’t entirely blind to what Williams was doing, but more so Williams was challenging his authority as a head coach by pushing the envelope and bending the rules in an “oh yeah well watch me” attitude.
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Spagnuola’s firing after only one year was a surprise at the time not because the defense was horrendous, but it was thought he would be given at least one try to turn the defense around — after a season that saw the team go ‘off kilter’ after being blamed for the punishments handed down from Bountygate that included the year-long suspension of Payton.
It was later revealed however that Spagnuola bucked the system as well; and the players themselves were glad to see him go after he set many up to fail by playing them out of position and was said to “treat people (players and defensive coaches) like crap” by an anonymous player following his one year tenure.
Rob Ryan on the other hand this week most notably did an interview with MMQB.com where he accused the Saints (basically Payton) of not allowing him to run his own game-plan after a successful first season with the team.
Ryan then threw the blame on Payton, noting that Payton wanted more of a Seattle Seahawks-style / “Legion of Boom” defense — which failed miserably and lead to the now questionable but at the time celebrated signing of free agents like safety Jarius Byrd.
Oct 5, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan talk on the sidelines during their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second quarter of their game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Even before his firing and that interview now 6 months later, Ryan did his best to let everyone know that the defense, especially in 2015, was Payton’s “blueprint”, to possibly absolve himself of any blame if it failed like it had previously in 2014.
People have picked the interview apart and Saints fans naturally scorched Ryan, but there is one thing that stood out that, along with back to back poor defensive outings, led to his dismissal after only two and a half seasons.
When asked in the interview about the switch over to the Seahawks defensive philosophy, Ryan mentioned that theirs (Seattle) was a “very simple scheme”; while his method was more in favor of multiple schemes and that he thought being multiple was “better” — saying emphatically “that’s what I believe in”.
This of course spawned the continued communication problems on defense that resembled a Laurel and Hardy “Who’s On First” routine with substitution problems and players not understanding their own assignments.
Instead of the “Legion of Boom”, it resembled something more along the lines of “The Keystone Cops”.
While Ryan may not have been the rougher-edged Williams, he apparently was not following the vision Payton wanted; and even admitted to in a way that he was just “going through the motions” the past few seasons, since the philosophy wasn’t what meshed with his.
A different vision, nonconformist personality, clashing with player and/or coaches, and simply going through the motions; aren’t qualities that will cement you to a Sean Payton-run team.
Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen talks to middle linebacker Stephone Anthony (50) prior to kickoff of a game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
This is where I mentioned that Allen can change the image of Payton’s reputation for the “quick turnaround” on defensive coordinators, because he is almost the exact opposite in almost every way.
He knows not only what is expected of him, but what Payton is looking for as well in a defense.
You have got to believe that the Williams-lead unit was exactly what Payton was looking for, just minus the “off the reservation” mentality of doing it; something Allen has alluded to (a shift back to the 2009 philosophy of defense) by recently saying:
"“We want to be an attacking, aggressive style of defense. We want to try to dictate the tempo to the offense as opposed to letting them dictate the tempo for us. We want to play hard, and we want to play fast.”"
Allen may have the seemingly Spagnuolo-type dryish personality, but it’s more of a serious and confident tone that can be seen and heard in interviews; where he appears to be simply laying it out on the table for the players, while still getting their respect — which is something the former didn’t have.
While Ryan may have shunned the simple approach to defense that Payton wanted, Allen prefers it and the tweaks he implemented when he took over, showed improvement even in the slightest way.
Nov 29, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen prior to kickoff of a game against the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Out of all this though, probably the most important thing Allen has is the utmost trust from Payton that may even give him a bit more freedom than previous coordinators, since he knows where the line is and not to cross that line.
It’s too early to tell how the defense under Allen’s direction will statistically perform in 2016, but the cliche of “nowhere to go but up” is one way of thinking after the past few years.
For Allen, the changes that are occurring on defense could possibly mean a change in the defensive coordinator carousel stereotype that has developed under Payton’s regime. And that’s a ride that nobody will eventually be in line for if it continues.
Especially with a reputation like the one that the Saints currently have………