Examining Saints special teams coaching change
It was almost a Super Bowl week footnote but nonetheless a significant development for the New Orleans Saints.
Head coach Sean Payton dismissed his special teams staff and hired Miami Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi.
The news was first reported by the NFL Network and confirmed this week by the Saints. It is a curious move.
Football outsiders said the Saints special teams ranked ninth overall in the 2018 season. The Dolphins, in the same rankings, were 21st.
Pro Football Focus graded the special teams of the Saints second overall, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Saints also made several big plays on special teams throughout the season, especially late in the campaign.
A fake punt against the Eagles in the NFC Divisional playoffs with the Saints down 14-0 sparked a run of 20 straight points that were enough for a New Orleans victory.
Weeks earlier in Tampa, the Saints were down 14-3 when Taysom Hill blocked a Bucs punt to help set up a Saints touchdown.
In a December win, the Saints stopped a fourth quarter fake punt attempt by the Steelers.
Tracking back earlier in the season, Hill completed a pass for a first down to Justin Hardee on a fake punt.
Only three teams – the Saints, the Patriots and the Rams – blocked two punts in the 2018 regular season.
However, the Saints were not good in the return game.
New Orleans and Jacksonville tied for the lowest punt return yards average in the NFL this season. The Saints’ longest punt return was 16 yards.
We have to ask, did one play cost the entire special teams staff their jobs?
In the NFC championship game, Rams punter Johnny Hekker threw a completion on a fake punt that sparked Los Angeles.
At the time, the Rams were down 13-0. The drive ended with a field goal that provided some much needed momentum.
If the fake doesn’t work, the Saints have the ball in Rams territory with a chance to go up three scores.
Another reason for the change in special teams coaches could be familiarity. In Miami, Darren Rizzi worked for Jeff Ireland, the Dolphins general manager at the time but now in the Saints front office.
When Miami changed head coaches in 2012, Rizzi was retained when much of the previous staff was swept aside.
On special teams, the Saints have some great pieces in place. Punter Thomas Morstead just completed his 10th season. Kicker Wil Lutz, just 24 years old, was 27-of-30 in field goals.
Yet, the Saints have not had a game breaker returning kicks since Reggie Bush, who returned four of 92 punts for touchdowns from 2006 to 2010.
In 2018, only two return men had at least one kickoff return and one punt return for a touchdown. They were Andre Roberts of the Giants, and Jakeem Grant of the Dolphins.
So, perhaps Payton sees Rizzi as the man who can spice up the return game.
But, you can’t help but wonder if this change would have been made if Hekker’s fake punt pass in the NFC championship failed.
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WGNO Sports Director/106.1 FM
Ed is a New Orleans native, born at Baptist Hospital. He graduated Rummel High School, class of 1975, and subsequently graduated from Loyola University. Ed started in TV in 1977 as first sports intern at WVUE Channel 8. He became Sports Director at KPLC TV Channel 7 in Lake Charles in 1980. In 1982 he was hired as sports reporter…