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Gazzolo Column: Payton back, but Saints' fate falls on Ryan

Last Modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 2:45 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

When the Saints opened training camp today, there was life back in their huddle.

Sean Payton returned to the sidelines. Drew Brees was back under center and the fans have awakened from their season of forced slumber.

And while excitement of a return to recent glory has those in New Orleans once again drinking in the joy, all hope really comes down to one guy and the difference he can make.

We are not talking about Payton, who’s back from a forced one-year exile by the league office for his part in that Bountygate mess.

Nor are we talking about the record-setting quarterback who makes the Saints offense run without a hitch, or often much of a running game itself.

See, the offense is a given, as is the head coach. Those parts of the Saints game will be just fine. Nothing to worry about there.

Nope, this season will not be decided on anybody who is returning to the Saints organization.

Instead, the one man who will provided the greatest hope for a winning fall is somebody who has gotten far less attention.

Enter Rob Ryan, the new defensive coordinator in New Orleans.

It is his job to make the Saints better on defense, something they have never really been good at since the days of Jim Mora.

They made enough big plays to win a Super Bowl a few years back, but that was a team led by Payton, Brees and a high-flying attack that was almost unstoppable.

Those facts haven’t changed much, but the defense has. Unable to make any real big plays since that Super Bowl, the Saints have fallen out of the elite team talk and into the group entering the new season with question marks.

The biggest of those is Ryan’s side of the football.

In the end, it won’t matter if Payton and Brees join forces and relive some of their greatest moments if Ryan’s crew can’t get the key stops or a few key turnovers.

This is not a defense that has to dominate mind you, just one that has be good enough for a stop a quarter. Two would be great.

For that, Ryan must change the defense’s attitude.

The past few years, the Saints have played defense almost like a victim. They look tentative, scared to make the big hit.

They look like a team both afraid to make a play and unwilling to take a chance.

You can’t play defense scared. Not in pro football.

This is where Ryan can make the biggest change.

He comes from a bombastic family of defensive gurus, a group of men who play fast and loud, and often times get in trouble because they do the same with their mouths.

They shoot from the hip. Rob Ryan is no different than his famous father or brother, just with longer hair.

The last couple of years he was in Dallas, where his defense played well at times but the Cowboys offense often let the team down.

Ryan became the fall guy for a team that many felt underachieved but in taking a closer look was more likely to have been over-hyped.

The Cowboys’ talent is middle of the pack, which is where the club finished.

Now Ryan heads to New Orleans, where the Saints were middle of the pack last year after being one of the league’s better teams before the Payton suspension.

His job now is to get the Saints back to the top, starting with a spot in the playoffs.

For that, he must take a group of players who have had little success is stopping anybody and turn them into at least a decent defense.

Last fall New Orleans was perhaps the worst defense in league history, giving up yards and points with ease and hitting like it was playing a game of flag football.

Nobody feared the Saints defense.

Ryan must change that attitude right from the first practice.

He has talked a good game, but talk comes easy to the Ryan boys. What he must do is turn that talk into action.

It is his job to make the Saints at least slow down the opposition so the offense can win it.

That is why despite all the big names, the man who will have the biggest impact on the Saints’ season is likely Rob Ryan.

And if you know anything about the coaching Ryans you know at least it won’t be a dull fall.

• • •

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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