Saints not the same without Payton
It’s easy to quantify a player’s contributions to his team. You take whatever relevant stats you can gather, compound them in a way you think reveals their contributions most accurately, then you argue until you’re blue in the face about which athlete is the best. Then you call everyone who disagrees with you an idiot. Then you comment on someone’s article about what an idiot they are for not mentioning your guy in certain discussions. It’s great fun really. Unfortunately applying that logic to a head coach is a trickier endeavor and, at best, an inexact science. We can say that all a team needs is a great coach and a great QB to be among the best, but if that’s the case, why haven’t the Patriots won the last ten Super Bowls? They have arguably the best QB/coach combination in the league. Sure, these axioms hold true in a large percentage of samples, but outside of the Win/Loss column, it’s tough to gauge what separates a good coach from an irreplaceable one.
This debate – among many others tied to the team – is what’s made this 2012 New Orleans Saint season so interesting. Coming into the season, you knew there would be trouble. You knew the team would be reeling from a vicious punishment handed down from Mr. Popular Roger Goodell, who not only suspended key defensive cogs Jonathan Vilma and Wil Smith, but also banned their head coach, Sean Payton, from so much as contacting the team for the whole 2012 season. Losing Vilma and Smith was a body blow to the Saints, but losing Payton felt like a knockout shot from the start. It’s easy to overlook coaching changes because you don’t see it on the field. You see players succeeding or failing, but only in a few instances can you tell if it’s really on the coach because a team won or lost.
What Saints fans learned the hard way in 2012 was that Sean Payton was one of the few coaches in the league who could have that kind of an impact. This is the man with a .646 winning percent in New Orleans, which is roughly six times as good as every Saints team combined until the year Payton arrived. Seriously, do you remember the Saints before Payton/Brees? Put it this way: Cleveland had it good compared to them. This is Sean Payton, not some replaceable head with a microphone. This is the man who made one of the gutsiest onside kick calls in NFL history. This is the guy who instantly turned a moribund franchise into a perennial contender. Yes, Drew Brees was a tremendous boon to that and an irreplaceable cog in the wheel, but he was only one player. To have a Payton-esque effect, you need to have your fingerprints all over the team, and it’s clear this year’s Saints team was missing that from the start.
An NFL head coach is more than just a play caller or a strategist. He’s the smooth voice of reason, the lighthouse in a storm and the Tony Robbins jaw of motivation. Need I go on? Joe Vitt seems like a tremendous guy and he’s clearly done the best job he could for the Saints this year, but Joe Vitt is not Sean Payton. Some guys are meant to be assistants who worry mainly about ‘their guys’ and write up plays accordingly, and that’s great. They are vital to any solid operation. They are not the focal point of the team like Payton is for this organization.
One way to assess coaching can be in penalties. Disciplined teams are well-coached and don’t take as many penalties. The Saints had 102 penalties in all of 2011 for a total of 869 yards. Through six games in 2012 (which really is where a lot of these problems were exacerbated. Yes, the team recovered to a respectable record, but starting 0-4 killed this season for the Saints, and they didn’t really get out of it until a brief surge) the Saints had 45 penalties for 401 yards. They were on pace for 120 penalties for 1,066 yards until Drew Brees grabbed the team by the cajones and willed them to respectability despite an atrocious defense (all found at nflpenalties.com. Great site for…anything NFL penalties related you need to know and not much else, as the name would suggest.). Granted, they’ve leveled off since then, but maybe that simple adjustment period for the players and coaches – in which the team was on pace to put up 20% more penalties than the prior year – was what really did this team in. Maybe there wouldn’t have been an adjustment period with Sean Payton on the sidelines.
If you don’t buy that penalties are a problem that’s on the coach, then let’s look at the overall record. Again, the 2012 season was shot for the Saints when they started 0-4. If they had managed even one win in that stretch (in which they played Washington, Carolina, KC and Green Bay) they would have been alive until at least Week 14 or 15. Once again, we look at that beginning of the season and wonder what might have happened if there hadn’t been an adjustment period.
Would the Saints have made the playoffs under Sean Payton? It’s impossible to say for sure. You like to think their chances would have certainly increased. Having the best coach is similar to having the best QB in the game. It gives you a distinct advantage, provided everything else falls in place. The Saints were a mess from the start and they needed their leader to bring everyone together and keep them focused on the prize. Payton is more of an offensive mind, but sometimes when the ship is steadied everyone plays a little better. Who knows if that could apply to the Saints defense?
For a team that won 37 regular season games in the three seasons prior, the New Orleans Saints can hang their head high knowing that next year they’ll get their coach back and they’ll be ready to contend once more. The talent is still there, the leadership is right and the season will start out on such a better note than this one. Joe Vitt seems like a stand up guy, but at the end of the day a team can only go as far as its true leader. See you in 2013, Sean Payton.
Cory Buck is a Featured Journalist at The Penalty Flag. You can follow him on Twitter @TheBuckMopsHere.