Saints’ fall from grace was inevitable

The fall of the Saints does not sadden me.

It doesn’t shock, confuse or confound me. I have no scapegoats to offer or anger to direct toward any of the team’s key decision makers or players.

No, every era inevitably comes to an end. This is simply the conclusion of the Sean Payton era in New Orleans.

The decision will be as mutual as it gets in the NFL world. Payton sees a Saints franchise that needs to rebuild, and a coach with his reputation won’t be eager to stick around and add a string of losses to his record. If he seeks an exit, it’s hard to imagine Tom Benson fighting too hard to pay Payton more than $8 million annually to oversee what could be a couple of trying seasons — especially with Payton’s deal ending in 2017.  Maybe the Saints will receive compensation, maybe not; either way, this season appears likely his last in New Orleans.

Since his return from his 2012 Bountygate suspension, Payton has done some things differently than in the past. I haven’t agreed with them all.

But even Payton were pushing all the right buttons on the sideline, losses would be difficult to avoid at this point. The Saints have never been shy about dealing away draft picks for higher selections or veteran help, and entered the 2015 offseason with an NFL high $32.5 million dollars in dead money on their salary cap. Combine that with the cost of doing business with an elite NFL quarterback like Drew Brees, and keeping this ship afloat would require a lot of great fortune, something an injury-riddled squad hasn’t seen much of this season.

Payton’s aggressiveness over his Saints tenure, I believe, has been his defining characteristic. It’s both led to his greatest success and the eventual undoing of his roster. A fearless playcaller at his peak, Payton’s onside kick call in the Super Bowl was the stuff of legends. His torment of the Dallas secondary in 2006 — when, with the lead, he continued calling for Brees to push the ball downfield and, incidentally, called another surprise onside kick after going ahead by 17 — remains one of the defining moments of his tenure.

Payton’s influence also extends to roster and draft decisions. When he saw a problem, he attacked it, for both better and worse. The Saints traded up in drafts, often, to go get pieces Payton felt could put his team over the top. It spent lots of money in free agency to do the same. The team’s clear philosophy has been to maximize its chances to win during Brees’ peak and deal with the consequences down the road.

Those decisions were not wrong — the team won a Super Bowl employing these methods, and no fan of the team would be willing to deal off that victory for a hypothetical decade of utilizing different tactics. But the dead money and the lack of impactful draft picks on this roster from the past few years has left the team in its current fix. Robbing Peter to pay Paul had plenty of benefits. But now Peter’s back. He’s running the show.

I think an extremely interesting comparison — and somewhat unfair, if looked at without context — is examining the contrasting personalities of Payton and New England’s Bill Belichick, who has put together the near impossible dynastic NFL program over the past 15 years. In many ways, Belichick is the inverse of Payton, Belichick’s patience the yin to the yang of Payton’s aggressiveness. The Patriots trade down in drafts to take many shots at a problem and Belichick is not married to any one star that is not named Tom Brady.

Their approaches are closer in effectiveness than you’d think, though I believe Belichick’s is ultimately superior; he’s won four rings to Payton’s one, but three of those came before Payton began his head coaching career. They’re 1-1 since 2006, and for a long time, a light criticism I’d heard from Patriot fans was that while Belichick kept New England consistently winning, refusal to go out and spend picks or dollars on any of the highest impact players kept the team from reaching a Super Bowl ceiling. New England’s best two seasons, ironically, came while utilizing some aggressive, Payton-esque measures: the 2007 season that saw the Pats deal picks for Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and the 2014 season where the Pats brought in Darrelle Revis and a host of upper-tier free agents.

But however you want to compare, Payton’s approach inevitably leads to a shorter shelf-life.

And here we are.

So I don’t get angry on Sundays. Not with Sean Payton. Not with Mickey Loomis. Not with Rob Ryan, Dennis Allen or Brandon Browner.

It all comes to an end at some point.

The Saints will have to fall before they can rise again. And their rise will be under a different coach. I’ll never begrudge Payton that. He brought me the best years of my life as a Saints fan. He brought us a World Championship, and for that I’ll forever be grateful.

 

About Ryan Arena 2674 Articles
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