Would firing Rob Ryan even matter? What comes next for the New Orleans Saints?

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Sean Payton masks in the gutter.
LISA A. MULVEY/CREATIVE COMMONS

Whatever Sean Payton chooses to do with Rob Ryan — and Ryan should most certainly be fired, as morning reports today indicated he was, before Payton dispelled them, for now — the Saints have bigger problems. All of their problems relate to defense. 

In ten seasons since 2006, the Saints have ranked 20th or worse in total defense an astounding seven times. They have ranked 31st or 32nd three of the last four years. It's a situation that never was good and has only gotten worse.

Meanwhile, Sean Payton's head just doesn't seem in the game. Via Chris Chase of USA Today's FTW:
Payton had no clue what down it was. Watch him here ask that very question:

“What down is it?“

Maybe stop chomping on that gum and look at a scoreboard and you wouldn’t have to ask a question even the most apathetic viewer of the game already knew.

The punt team was sent in on the F-O-U-R-T-H down, but Brees waved them off. Then he missed Mark Ingram on the fourth-down pass anyway.
A friend texted me: "Drew is going rogue now." But it turns out Brees was merely acting as though a football game was happening that he was paying attention to. Not so for Payton.

It's strange, this season with respect to Payton. At times, he seems out to prove he's still the smartest guy in the room, crafting a solid gameplan with a backup quarterback in Carolina earlier this year, or smirking knowingly while his team puts the first crack in the Atlanta Falcons' armor. But other times he's asking "What down is it?" or coming off as irritable and detached during his press conferences.

More and more, Payton seems to want out, to desire a change in scenery while the perceived value of his services is still high enough to offer him long term job security. Yahoo's Eric Edholm, in an article hastily edited after news of Rob Ryan's firing turned out to be premature, raises a fascinating point:
So Payton can fire Ryan, a coach he never much cared for, and — we're guessing here — promote his good buddy Dennis Allen, doing him a solid in terms of exposure, as Ryan's replacement. And Payton comes out of this looking cleaner, even if his judgment and coaching ability have to be questioned equally. The bombastic Ryan is the perfect scapegoat: he's known, he's visible, he has a famous last name and he was highly expendible. It made too much sense.

Firing Ryan won't save the Saints' season in and of itself. But it could save Payton's chances of landing elsewhere last season and give him a ready-made excuse when he goes to answer questions about his teams' struggles the past two seasons.

It was Ryan's fault!
Edholm goes so far as to imply that Payton kept Ryan partly to have a scapegoat on hand. That seems unlikely, though it would explain the mystery job Payton gave to Dennis Allen — have a backup coordinator on hand in case the scapegoating plan became necessary.

But let's be real: Hiring Ryan was a mistake to begin with. The relative success of his defense in 2013 fits a pattern of early success followed by complete disaster that defines Ryan's career, and Payton was foolish to think things would work differently this time.

It was also a mistake for Payton to hire Steve Spagnuolo in 2012. And, while Gregg Williams's Saints defenses are the best of the Payton era, they were too inconsistent and, indeed, generally bad enough that Williams will go down as another poor choice even before you factor in the hell that choice brought upon the Saints and their fans, justified or not.

Every choice Sean Payton has made for his defense has ended badly; just how bad seems to escalate with each hire. His first defensive coordinator, Gary Gibbs, produced a bad unit in 2008, but it at least wasn't record-setting. Williams helped inspire an otherwise bad defense to big-play, Super Bowl run-supporting form in 2009, but petered out, and then came you-know-what. Spagnuolo produced what might have been the worst defense in NFL history — until Rob Ryan's 2015 Saints came along to challenge for the title.

Payton's eventual decision, in the next day or two, with respect to Ryan will be interesting to observe. It seems improbable that anything other than a firing will happen. But the really riveting part will be what happens next.

Will Payton move on? That would certainly make for yet another entertaining off-season. But the question marks would be almost as huge if Payton stays in New Orleans:

What will he do at defensive coordinator? And will the fifth time be the charm?


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