Do you remember when a young Sean Payton became the head coach of the New Orleans Saints in 2006? Back then, Payton took his team to Millsaps College in Jackson Mississippi, and dragged them through one of the most grueling training camps in franchise history. The newly-minted head coach was trying to send a message to his team: the football culture was changing in New Orleans. Gone were the lazy Saints, the lovable losers. New Orleans was going to be known for its grit, discipline and toughness. Well, that worked in 2006, when the Saints reached the NFC Championship game, losing to the Bears in Chicago. However, despite returning to Millsaps in 2007 and 2008, New Orleans went 7-9 and 8-8 those two years respectively. Gone was the apparent toughness instilled by the stifling Mississippi heat. In 2011 Payton took his team to the rough and unforgiving confines of the River Ridge Playing Fields in Oxnard California for half of training camp that year. Sounds familiar?
It should: The River Ridge Playing Fields in Oxnard aren't exactly some modest high school dorms in Jackson. Actually, they sounds very much like the Greenbrier Resort, where in 2014, the Saints spent half of their training camp as well. Yet, in 2011, the Saints went 13-3 and had one of the greatest season in franchise history, falling just short of the NFC Championship game, despite doing something very similar to 2014 in terms of training camp location and schedule. New Orleans is now 1-3 and facing long odds to even make the playoffs.
So the narrative that training camp in the lush and cushy Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia made the Saints a soft team is a fairly lazy one. However, these Saints are indeed soft. They were soft in 2009 when they won the Super Bowl and they are soft now. Sean Payton's teams have taken his football character: high-flying, fancy, air-raid. New Orleans football under Payton is rarely gritty, rarely run-it-down-your-throat and pretty much never tough football. This is a near undeniable fact and New Orleans has been very successful with that "soft" style for the past eight years.
The difference in 2009 is that the Saints had not only a great offense, but also a defense that complemented it by feasting on turnovers. Through four games in 2009, the Saints had 13 turnovers: three fumble recoveries and 10 interceptions. Through four games in 2014, New Orleans has one takeaway: a fumble forced by safety Jairus Byrd against Atlanta in week one. Since then, the Saints defense has been unable to take the ball away and they are on pace for four turnovers this entire season.
Of course, it seems silly to think that New Orleans could go 16 games over a full season and only record four takeaways, but given how they've played so far, I'm not certain we should be surprised if that happens.
This has been the great Achilles heel of Payton's teams in New Orleans since 2006: high-flying offenses, mediocre to bad defenses. There's no telling how Payton and Brees' resumes would look right now had they had a competent defense in New Orleans year in and year out.
Questions now abound regarding these 2014 New Orleans Saints: where do they go from here? Can they turn it around? But maybe key among all of these inquiries: should defensive coordinator Roby Ryan now firmly be the hot seat for the defense's poor play?
The man who guided the Saints to a top five defensive ranking last year, his first in New Orleans, is now at the helm of one of the worst defenses in the league. The honeymoon between New Orleans and Rob Ryan lasted all of one season, as his defense now looks confused on the field, unable to tackle, unable to defend against either the pass or the run. Long gone are the victory drinks at Ms Mae's and the parades on a Mardi Gras-packed Bourbon Street. New Orleans likes partying, but it doesn't like losing.
Can Ryan stem the tide of what promises to be a woeful 2014 defense before it is too late? And if not, should he be given the axe before the end of the year in order to inject some life in the moribund Saints defense?
This is a knee-jerk reaction that will be seen across the Who Dat Nation, as fans usually want to see immediate action by the team following disappointing losses. However, firing Ryan before the end of the year could backfire and send the team into a tail-spin. Instability, as we all know, is something National Football League teams abhor and Ryan seems to have a good relationship with his players. On the other hand, standing pat could lead to the team's demise, in what looked like a promising 2014 season just three weeks ago, prior to the opener against the Falcons.
With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3) coming to the Mercedes Benz Superdome next Sunday, the Saints have a chance to enter their bye week at 2-3 with a win. This would help the team heal and regroup on somewhat of a positive note. On the other hand, a loss at home to the Bucs could spell doom on this young 2014 season for the Saints. More drastically, it could mean an abrupt end to the Payton-Ryan partnership in New Orleans, one that many thought could bring a second Super Bowl to the Big Easy.