In the last year the New Orleans Saints have gone from Gregg Willams to Steve Spagnuolo to a new defensive coordinator yet to be determined. In turn, the defense has changed from a blitz-heavy, instinctual scheme to a high IQ, "difficult to grasp" scheme, to now a 3-4 defense in need of a major personnel overhaul. This would be a lot to take in for any franchise, much less one that has had to deal with the challenges the Saints faced this past season.
This is all coming off a season in which the Saints lost their head coach, assistant head coach, and general manager to lengthy suspensions. They used two interim head coaches during the season itself, then lost their offensive line coach to another team after the season. With their continued success the Saints coaching staff is always interviewing for promotions elsewhere. Very few teams have had to deal with the combination of obstacles and changes that the Saints have had to balance recently.
The decision to fire Steve Spagnuolo was not a difficult one. You can't put out a defense that bad every week, break records of futility and still expect to be employed. But did Spags and his scheme deserve another season for the sake of stability? Let's be honest, Spags didn't have much to work with from the beginning. Watching him try to transform and educate this defense was like watching a rendition of Pygmalion. The pieces did not fit the scheme. Is the Saints front office prepared to invest in the personnel to make this 3-4 scheme succeed where Spags failed?
The biggest question here is the 3-4 scheme itself. The Saints last employed the 3-4 in 1994, nineteen years ago. For the Who Dat faithful the 3-4 system is synonymous with the Dome Patrol, the most dominant linebacking corps in NFL history. Unfortunately, Jackson, Swilling, Johnson, and Mills aren't running out of that tunnel next season. Do the Saints feel most of the pieces are in place for a fundamental shift like this? The Saints are sacrificing a little stability for a chance at making a big impact on defense. A gamble to be sure, but hopefully one that pays off in a big way.
I welcome the 3-4 scheme coming to New Orleans. It's a scheme I've felt could work well here for quite some time and I look forward to it's implementation. What was the last productive 4-3 defensive line to actually create pressure here in New Orleans? Howard, Hand, Glover, and Johnson in 2000? Even they weren't a true threat to most QB's. This is a change long overdue. For one season Gregg made winners out of an unknown commodity and Spags made nothing out of not much. Change was due, and Sean Payton had an entire season to evaluate the changes necessary in an ever-changing league.
Payton had the rarest of opportunities in that he could evaluate without having to worry about the day-to-day preparation of his team. He could see how new and successful offenses were attacking teams, particularly his team, and was able to decide what the best course of action would be going into this next season. I don't think the change from 4-3 to 3-4 was made lightly or was a reactionary move against Spags. I believe Payton, as the premier offensive mind in the NFL today, saw where offenses are going this season and beyond and made the best decision for his team as a whole.
The 2012 New Orleans Saints craved stability, a stability that never materialized. With Sean Payton back at the helm the two central stabilizing forces, Drew Brees being the other, are back in place. The Saints will likely have to lean heavily on their offense once again in 2013 but that comes as no surprise. On defense though, can the Saints afford another year of wholesale changes and diminishing results? The offense isn't getting any younger and they've got to strike while the title window is still open. The 3-4 change has got to work and it can't take too much time to get going. Just look how much time Spagnuolo got.
Best case scenario, this works out just like the Gregg Williams hiring of 2009 but without all of the absolute garbage that followed him. We will see who the Saints select to take on the task of implementing this new scheme. It will be a monumental task putting this all together but Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis have earned the faith and trust of Who Dat Nation to get this done right.
For the Saints, regaining stability will be the first step toward success in 2013.