Saints hope fresh blood on coaching staff leads to improved product on field
METAIRIE — Saints general manager Mickey Loomis has been with the organization for six of its 10 playoff appearances, including the Super Bowl championship season in 2009.
The Super Bowl championship season is one of the five playoff seasons that have taken place during coach Sean Payton’s tenure.
So both men understand fans’ impatience and acutely feel the dissatisfaction resulting from three consecutive 7-9 seasons as they embark on the 2017 season in search of a return to the post-season.
Just how much their job security is tied to a better record this season is anyone’s guess — except owner Tom Benson.
“I think at some point when you’ve been in the business long enough as I have and as Sean has you put more pressure on yourself than anyone externally does,” Loomis said. “We understand the business, it’s a produce-or-else business and we understand that. That’s true every year, I think it’s true for the players, they understand that too.”
The organization’s determination to break out of the 7-9 funk was demonstrated during the off-season when Payton fired five coaches, including three of his closest lieutenants — associate head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt, special teams coordinator Greg McMahon and defensive line coach Bill Johnson.
“I talk about this a lot with the players: there are times when you think you are repeating yourself as a head coach,” Payton said. “There are too many times where you think more people have heard the message, when in reality, not as many have. I think the same thing exists with your staff.”
So Payton decided it was time for fresh voices and fresh blood to be added to the coaching staff.
“That’s difficult on anyone,” Loomis said. “When you’ve been through as much as he has and we have with a number of these guys, that’s a really difficult decision. Yeah it’s really difficult but, sometimes change is necessary and it doesn’t necessarily reflect on that particular person or coach.
“They could be really good and the coaches we let go were really good and are really good but, sometimes you need to make a change for the players’ sake.”
Payton brought in Mike Nolan as linebackers coach, Bradford Banta as special teams coordinator and Ryan Nielsen as defensive line coach.
“I think that the coaches, like the players, have strengths and weaknesses,” Payton said. “Hopefully, to that point, we talk all the time about trying to put the players in the best positions to be successful. Hopefully, I can do that with our coaching staff and make sure that in a leadership position, we are asking the right guys to be teaching the right subjects.
“It is about making sure that the communication is clear and that they understand what we are trying to do each day and then confront it if it is not and move forward in a positive way with the mindset, ultimately, on strictly winning, not necessarily how we win. It is just about being successful as a team.”
If this Saints team is going to be more successful than the last three it almost certainly will have to be more successful during the first month of the season. It started 0-4 last season, 1-4 in 2015 and 1-3 in 2014.
This season’s schedule seems especially challenging during the first month. New Orleans opens at Minnesota, hosts New England and visits Carolina and Miami. That’s three out of four on the road, the lone home game against the defending Super Bowl champions and road games against a playoff team from a year ago (Miami), the NFC champion two years ago (Carolina) and a Vikings team that was 8-8 a year ago and has the makings of a playoff team this year.
“There is a lot of work ahead of us; we are going to challenge these guys,” Payton said. “I think they will be up for the challenge. Hopefully, they are smart enough to understand it. It is certainly a team that will understand the sense of urgency that we have to play with, especially early.”
Payton said he’s encouraged by his belief that the NFL, more so than the NBA or Major League Baseball, lends itself to teams being able to make dramatic improvement in their won-lost record from one season to the next.
“I think the important lesson is the ability from one season to the next, whether your team improves and you play better or you stay healthier, this is the time of the year where hope is across the whole league,” Payton said. “I do think that it is still about the right group of individuals who put the team ahead of any individual achievements or goals and a coaching staff that does the same thing, that grinds on each day and focuses on winning that day.
“We are smart enough when the season comes around to understand how to win each week and how to avoid those things that keep you from winning. The way this league is shaped and with the roster changes that take place every year, it is about finding the right team. I use that term ‘the right 53.’ It is going to be different from a year ago. This is a different team. There are different players on it. The roster, when it is all said and done, will be different. So, that is encouraging to me.”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…