Sometimes life is isn't fair. And if you happen to be a coach in the National Football League, life is rarely fair. Yes, the proverbial 'hot seat' in the NFL is usually warmest for the head coach; however in the Big Easy, where a Super Bowl Championship is still a not-too-distant memory, Sean Payton's job is certainly safe with the Saints. Couple that with Payton's close relationships with owner Tom Benson, owner-in-waiting Gayle Benson and General Manager Mickey Loomis, plus a relatively new long term contract, this 9th year head coach isn't going anywhere. Unless of course, he decides to do so himself.
But when it comes to Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan, it's a completely different story altogether. Although Ryan is much beloved in the Crescent City for his laissez les bon temps rouler spirit, and joie de vivre attitude, the bottom line in football is "what have you done for me lately?" And no one in Saints history has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse faster than Rob Ryan (and his defense) the past two seasons.
When Rob Ryan was fired by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones following the 2012 season, he said, "I inherited a team that was 31st in the league in defense and made them better. I (expletive) made them a hell of a lot better. I'll be out of work for like 5 minutes." Well, it wasn't exactly five minutes, but it only took a month for Ryan to land another job in the NFL as the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints.
"We have experience in preparing and playing against his defenses, and they've always been challenging in terms of the different looks and pressures that they feature," Payton said when Ryan's hiring was announced by the Saints on February 10, 2013.
And in the 31 months since that day, the Who Dat Nation has been taken on a wild, exhilarating ride upon the Rob Ryan Express.
If Ryan thought the Cowboys defense he inherited was bad, he must have been completely terrified when he took over the 2012 New Orleans Saints unit. Statistically, not only did the Saints defense rank dead last in the league, but was also the very worst the NFL had seen since 1960. The season that will forever be remembered as Bountygate, was also one that was endured without their head coach; Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season for his role in the, errrr, scandal.
Although most NFL franchises don't consider a 7-9 season as completely "bottoming out", it certainly had that dark feeling in New Orleans. After all, the Saints 36-12 record the previous 3 years was the best overall record in the NFL during that span. And that Super Bowl victory in '09 didn't hurt the perception that the Saints had been one of the NFL's powerhouse organizations.
Loomis and Payton hired Ryan after only one year of the Steve Spagnuolo Experiment. Spagnuolo, who was the architect of the Super Bowl winning New York Giants defense in their stunning upset over the undefeated 18-0 New England Patriots. Despite failing as the St. Louis Rams head coach, Spagnuolo was hired with much fanfare to replace the wildly successful, and always controversial Gregg Williams. And the rest of the story is history....yes, literally history. As mentioned earlier, the Saints had the worst defense in modern NFL history....and Spagnuolo was fired right after Payton returned from his year in purgatory.
When Ryan arrived in New Orleans, most observers were just hoping that he could help get the Saints defense back to the top half of the NFL. Ryan did just that...but also a whole lot more. The defense jumped from dead last in the league all the way up to 4th in both yardage and points given up. Not only did Ryan become the toast of the entire city of New Orleans for his work in the Superdome, he also became a larger than life figure in the city's numerous restaurants and barrooms as well. Known for his voracious appetite and 'joy of life', Ryan attained legendary status for slapping down a $100 bill on the bar at Ms. Mae's Club on Magazine, and buying everyone a round of drinks. That is a great way to get people in New Orleans to love you.
Yes, the good times were indeed rolling again for the Saints organization, who went on to recover from the Bountygate debacle with a surprising 11-5 season and the franchise's first road playoff victory ever, courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles. And then 2014 happened....
The Dow Jones Industrial Average market index hasn't seen more turbulent activity than what has happened to the Saints since 2011. That Saints squad went 13-3 in the regular season, and was arguably the best team they ever put on the field, including the Super Bowl year. The '11 Saints just didn't beat teams...they absolutely demoralized them. If not for one of the craziest finishes (and toughest losses) in playoff history vs the San Francisco 49ers, many observers felt the Saints would have easily been Champions for the 2nd time in 3 years. It wasn't meant to be however. Follow that with the 2012 Bountygate season and the next two up & down seasons, absolutely nothing makes sense anymore in the Who Dat Nation.
Last year's 2014 Saints rank among the most disappointing of all-time since the franchise's inception in 1967. Before the season, the unofficial Ambassador of New Orleans, and former Saints hero Archie Manning, proclaimed that team to be the best in the team's history...on paper. And Archie, who experienced his own huge disappointment with a 1-15 season in 1980, wasn't the only one who was fooled. Everyone associated with the Saints organization had already booked January playoff plans.
Unfortunately, the Saints completed their 4-year crazy, topsy-turvy run with a disappointing 7-9 record, in addition to finishing with the 31st ranked defense. It's almost unimaginable that an NFL defensive unit can go from 32nd to 4th, and then back to 31st in a span of three seasons. But somehow, that's exactly what they managed to do.
The 2015 Saints are determined to turn the defense back around yet again. They drafted 6 players on that side of the ball, including two linebackers (Stephone Anthony & Hau'oli Kikaha) who should be starters when they open the season on Sunday against the Cardinals. And after bringing in established veterans Brandon Browner, Kevin Williams and Dannell Ellerbe to play significant minutes, Rob Ryan knows it's time for his defense to "put up or shut up."