New Orleans Saints: Cheers for coach firings may be short-lived

Word came down from on high that the New Orleans Saints fired 5 coaches on Thursday.

The biggest names in the group were New Orleans Saints’ special teams coordinator Greg McMahon, defensive line coach Bill Johnson, and assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt.  McMahon and Vitt have been with head coach Sean Payton here from the beginning in 2006, with Johnson joining in 2009.  Technically speaking, Johnson’s ending wasn’t a firing – his contract expired at the end of this season and it simply wasn’t renewed.

The others were fired though, all let go for the same reasons: lack of production.  Their units simply didn’t perform to any acceptable standard.

McMahon, a college buddy of Payton’s, had the unenviable task of coaching special teams.

Special teams are routinely made of rookies and young players who are simply trying to make their mark on the team.  They didn’t come to the NFL specifically to play special teams, unless they are return specialists or kickers/punters/snappers. They are position players trying to get noticed in practice.

The special teams coach has to convince them of the importance of their jobs on special teams, as well as create a dynamic unit that can help to either score 3 points, block kicks or punts, defend against those things, and help create field position for the offense or defense to work with.  McMahon’s squads were woefully poor in these regards. So his release, as well as the release of his assistant, Stan Kwan, comes as little surprise. Particularly since the New Orleans Saints hired Kevin O’Dea midway through the season to assist with special teams. It was no accident that, after O’Dea’s hiring, the kicking game improved.

The masses of Who Dats have been quick to gleefully shout from the rooftops their joy over the firing of these coaches.

It’s long overdue. The defense has been bad for so long. We’ve needed better coaches for a long time. Etcetera.  While I don’t really disagree that change can be good, and that these moves are probably warranted, a good look at the overall landscape may show a picture that differs somewhat from what most are ready to see….

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Vitt and Johnson are often the targets for fans who are disgusted with the defensive performance.

The line doesn’t get enough pressure on the quarterback.  The young talent at linebacker isn’t

being developed.  These things are all possibly true.  When the Saints won the Super Bowl, the linebacking corps was a veteran group so it was more about motivating them than teaching new skills and developing them.  The line had one rookie with veterans around him, and the rookie was a first round pick.  Again, not much need for developing them, just wind them up and let them go.

Since that season, we’ve only had two other “good” defensive seasons.  Most of the others have been mediocre to poor. Is that due to a failure to develop talent?  Let’s look at some of the simple things…

Examining the defensive line and linebacker draft picks over the years from 2009 until 2014, there’s been little talent to develop.

Of all the players drafted at those positions, only one of them is a full-time starter for any team (Akiem Hicks).  Another two are still active and playing in the NFL, Rufus Johnson and Al Woods. One is currently playing in the Canadian Football League, Martez Wilson.  The rest of them have either bounced from team to team, had injuries derail their careers, or just got dumped and are out of football.

The free agent pool hasn’t been much better.

A quick look at some of the major acquisitions of that same time frame shows the Saints were poor in selecting talent. They often got guys at the end of their careers, guys with a propensity for injuries, or guys who just weren’t very good, regardless the coaching.  Jimmy Wilkerson, Alex Brown, Shaun Rogers, Aubrayo Franklin, Turk McBride – all free agent misses.  Broderick Bunkley was moderately successful in the run game.  Yes, it’s true, the linebackers may not have been well coached.  Curtis Lofton played well in Year One but didn’t perform in Rob Ryan’s scheme.

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The poster children for the lack of production and coaching of the defense would be guys like Ramon Humber, David Hawthorne, Stephone Anthony, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Tyrunn Walker and John Jenkins.

These guys all were brought in with high expectations and high ceilings for production.  For one reason or another, none of them ever produced to the level expected.  These guys could definitely be identified as coaching let downs – nothing else seemed to hamper them from excelling.  Hawthorne was hurt early on. He eventually developed into a decent player, but not a very good linebacker.  He never seemed to take that next step that good coaching can take you to.  Anthony seemingly regressed from year one to two.  How is that?  Yes, he came in under Rob Ryan, and is now under Dennis Allen as a coordinator.  But his linebacker coach is the same.  Just not a good scenario.

We should also look at the salary cap hell the Saints have been in.

Due to the team’s errors in selections and its penchant for backloading contracts, the dead money hit has escalated to astronomical proportions, restricting the type of talent you can select from the free agent pool.  Bringing in better free agents often helps your coaches look better.  It also helps to have very good veterans teaching the younger players around them how to play and work. That makes the entire unit better.

The overall statement here is simple.  Changes always occur and are necessary.  Fine.  But to place so much blame on the coaches, or to get so ecstatic when coaches are fired as if they are the major problem rather than the selection of talent is, maybe, a bit erroneous.

Yes, good coaching can make a difference and we should strive to have the best coaches available; and if these aren’t them, then we should find better ones.  But don’t believe for a second that coaching is magically going to make this team better.

And if you were watching at all this season, you’ll note that the Saints D-line, while not getting sack-type pressure on a regular basis, was much improved over the last few years.  Fairley, Rankins, and Jordan are solid performers and Davison and Onyemata are serviceable backups.  Health will help the other end spot.  We really need one more HEALTHY linebacker to solidify that corps. We finished the season with only 3 healthy linebackers on the roster. A sideline to sideline MLB, a thumper, would make all the difference.

So, it may not take much more than that, health, and a few better bounces to take this team from a bottom third defense to a middle third defense.  And that has little to do with the coaching.

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