Expectations pertaining to the success of the New Orleans Saints defense in 2013 may actually be linked to an ongoing rivalry of the past three decades. It is especially lively in the Northeast where New England head coach (HC) Bill Belichick regularly plays against the New York Jets and their HC, Rex Ryan, who is the son of former NFL defensive legend Buddy Ryan. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, teams where Ryan was defensive coordinator (DC) or HC and Belichick was either an assistant, DC or HC regularly squared off and heavily influenced teams then and now. Even the 2012 Bountygate scandal can be indirectly tied to the ongoing dispute between the two factions (Jimmy Johnson's allegations, in 1989, of Buddy Ryan, then HC of the Philadelphia Eagles, putting a bounty on quarterback Troy Aikman and kicker Luis Zendejas).
In 2009, former New Orleans Saints DC Gregg Williams, a Buddy Ryan assistant in Houston, aggressive and relentlessly blitzing defense created havoc on opposing offenses and, although the Saints defense was ranked 25th (26th against the pass, 21st against the run) in the league, we ranked 13th in sacks (35 sacks), third in interceptions (26), 13th in forced fumbles (15) and first in both defensive touchdowns from fumbles (3) and interceptions (5). Compared to last season's defenses around the league, those numbers would have ranked 19th in sacks, first in interceptions, tied for 13th in forced fumbles, tied for first in touchdowns off of fumbles and second in touchdowns off of interceptions. Touchdowns off of turnovers are not typically a very telling statistic but, in the context of an "opportunistic defense," a term often used to describe the 2009 defense, they provide key indexes for such a defense to succeed.
Fast forward to the 2012 season when our Saints defense was dead last in the league by ranking 31st against the pass and 32nd against the run. With 30 sacks we were ranked 25th, 15 interceptions equated to a ranking of 14th, 11 forced fumbles earned us a ranking of 26th, and 4 touchdowns off interceptions and 0 touchdowns off fumbles both tied us for 4th. Measures such as yards allowed per game can be very important (in 2009 we allowed about 358, resulting in a ranking of 25th, while in 2012 we allowed 440, ranking us as the worst in league history) but, in an opportunistic style of defense, such measures are not as telling because the primary goal is to get the ball back to our offense, which has proven its ability to score points, when given the opportunity.
Since 2009 appears to have been the year where the mix of our offensive and defensive production were enough to bring the Lombardi home, we will use that season's statistics as our benchmark and compare new DC Rob Ryan's defenses with previous coaching stints and get a glimpse of whether-or-not we can realistically expect to reach that level of performance and balance again. In 1994, the year Ryan entered the league as defensive backs coach, the Arizona Cardinals led the league in interceptions with 23 and ranked 11th in fumbles with 28. Ryan managed to repeat a similar feat in 1995 when the Cardinals led the league by forcing 39 fumbles and tied for 8th with 19 interceptions. After coaching in the collegiate ranks for a few years, Ryan returned to the NFL in 2000 as linebackers coach for New England and, in 2003, the Patriots allowed the fewest points in the league
In attempting to assess Ryan's early successes in the NFL and translate it into realistic expectations for the coming Saint's season, we can not ignore the fact that that since his father, Buddy Ryan, was Head Coach of the Cardinals and the younger Ryan may have benefitted largely from his father's guidance. The same may also be said of his tenure in New England where head coach Belichick's Patriots have, at times, sported some of the best defenses in the league since he became HC in 2000. Ryan's tenure as DC with the three previous teams he's served on since 2004, the period over which we can get the best evaluation of his ability, will be the most accurate and fairest measures of his ability. Unfortunately, it has been during that period with the Raiders from 2004-2008, the Browns from 2009-2010 and Dallas from 2011-2013 that his defenses have seen a steady decline.
According to NFL.com, in his five years (2004-2008) as DC in Oakland, the Raiders defenses ranked (respectively): 30th, 6th, 3rd, 22nd and 27th. In his two years as DC in Cleveland, they ranked 31st and 21st, and as DC in Dallas they ranked 14th and 19th. If we are to judge Ryan by rankings alone we are left to question Sean Payton's judgment! Remember though that our 2009 defense was only ranked 25th and, as it turns out, the average of Ryan's defenses over the course of his nine years as a DC is roughly 20th. So, by that measure alone, we may realistically hope to do at least as well (defensively) as in 2009. However, by considering the key metrics of an opportunistic defense, those being the averages of Ryan's pass and run defenses, number of sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles, as well as points scored off turnovers, we get a clearer estimation of how well Ryan fits the opportunistic mold.
The average ranking of Ryan's defenses (total yardage allowed) during his five years in Oakland was 17.6, with his pass defense ranking an average of 14.8 and his run defense 21.2. The number of sacks averaged a ranking of 21.8, interceptions ranked 22.6 and forced fumbles 17.6 with points off of turnovers averaging 14.9. In his two years in Cleveland, Ryan's averages were: 26, 23.5, 26.5, 16.5, 18.5, 28.5, and 9.25 followed by his two years in Dallas where he averaged: 16.5, 21, 14.5, 13.5, 24, 17.5, and 10.75. The total averages of Ryan's three stints as DC are: 20, 19.77, 20.73, 17.27, 21.7, 21.2, and 11.63. Compared to the Saint's averages of 2009, although Ryan's defenses have averaged better overall, as well as against the pass and run, he has averaged substantially worse in the key areas of focus for an opportunistic defense, particularly in sacks, turnovers and points off of turnovers.
We have listed extremely narrow parameters for this study and, while others were considered, only these seven were included . We considered key areas of strength for the 2009 Saints defense and used them as a benchmark with which to compare the defenses of Ryan's nine year career. In our next evaluation, we will compare personnel on the four teams on which Ryan has served as DC followed by an evaluation of the teams against which Ryan has coached and how that may translate into expectations for the upcoming season. As loyal Saints fans we live on high hopes even, in the words of Alan Greenspan, "irrational exuberance" at times. Regardless, we will hold fast to our hopes of a return to at least 2009 levels while not shying away from dreaming of a repeat of Buddy Ryan's 1985 Bears defense, whose lineage Sean Payton has reached back into, once again.