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Saints head coach Sean Payton. (Associated Press)<br>

Saints head coach Sean Payton. (Associated Press)

Gazzolo: With Payton back, last season’s struggles forgotten

Last Modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 5:25 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

After serving as gracious hosts during the most recent Super Bowl, the Saints want to once again become invited guests.

It has been four years since the franchise stunned pro football and claimed the only championship in its history.

And, while last week’s events in New Orleans proved once again the city can throw a party, fans also know it would be much better to be one of the two teams who play in the biggest of games.

There was a belief that the Saints could have done both when last week’s game was first awarded to the city. Why not? The Saints were still a true championship contender and the game was coming to town.

But a lot can change in a short period of time. Any hope of that possibility was first ripped apart by the bounty gate scandal and then a league-worst defense.

The Saints quickly fell from searching for a title to drifting out of the playoff picture. Then came all the blame.

It was the league’s fault, it was the commissioner’s fault, it was the defense’s fault. Fact is, there were a host of reasons why the Saints didn’t make the playoffs last year, each of which contributed to the 7-9 season.

However, when the power was restored to the Superdome and the final whistle finally sounded, the Saints were once again playoff contenders.

It might be a reach to say right now they are in the championship hunt, but a return to the postseason is not out of the question.

Quarterback Drew Brees said as much when he was leading tours around New Orleans in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLVII (47).

Brees proclaimed last season dead and told Saints players and fans it was time to “turn the page” on the bounty mess. Moving on is the only way for this franchise to rebound.

He’s right. What is done is done. Now, it is time to look forward.

The Saints signed their biggest free agent when head coach Sean Payton inked a new deal to stay in town. Coming off a season-long suspension, Payton says he is ready to get back down to business.

Fixing the defense is the first thing the offensive guru must do.

To that end, Payton fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and secondary coach Ken Flajole. Also, he announced on the same day that the club would be changing over to a 3-4 defense.

Dumping Spagnuolo was a mercy killing. The Saints were last in total yards allowed in 2012 with 7,042. It wasn’t even close.

The next worst team, the New York Giants, were some 900 yards better on defense. That’s nine football fields.

Spagnuolo’s group was the only one to allow more than 400 yards a game, giving up a whopping 440.

Clearly, something had to be done.

Saturday they ended the brief search for a new defensive boss. Rob Ryan became Payton’s choice after he was dumped by Dallas at the end of last season. Ryan got the boot when the Cowboys finished 19th in defense.

The Saints would love a 19th place finish on defense. That would be a 13-team improvement and likely lead to the playoffs.

Ryan made noise when he said he would be out of work just five minutes after Dallas kicked him to the curb. For the record, he was unemployed just over a month.

Five minutes, five weeks, what’s the difference as long as the Saints learn how to tackle?

Ryan seems like a solid choice, but he does come with some baggage. He, like his brother Rex and father Buddy, is loud and always finds the spotlight. He, also like the rest of his family, can coach defense, but at what cost?

Rex has put his Jets into more than a few tight spots with his mouth. Buddy threw a punch at an offensive coordinator once. Meanwhile, Rob also likes to be the center of attention.

For the Saints this might be a problem since the spotlight clearly shines on Brees, Payton and the offense. Ryan may be more trouble then he is worth, but at least he won’t be dull.

Clearly, there must be a change in attitude among the players. The Saints were so bad you half expected to see tackling dummies run over their defenders for touchdowns during practices.

A free agent named Ed Reed could change that.

Reed is the strong-willed safety who grew up in New Orleans and is a free agent. He is coming off helping the Baltimore Ravens win their second championship in his home town.

Reed will hit you, even if he is getting up there in age. And he can still make an impact with big plays. While he can’t do it alone, he would provide leadership and a change in culture a new defensive coordinator would be looking for.

At 34, Reed might not be the perfect fit to save a defense but he would be a great corner stone in repairing one.

Still, this team will win or lose based mainly on the arm of Brees and the leadership of Payton, who told ESPN Radio he is refreshed after the forced sabbatical.

“I’m coming in with the mindset that this is my first year here and I just got hired,” Payton said.

That’s good, for the first time around things worked out pretty well. His return also excites Brees.

“Sean’s back, all the pieces are in place, and now it’s time for us to put ourselves in a position to make a run,” he said.

How many runs he has left in him is the biggest question with Brees. He just recently turned 34 so the end of his career is closer than the beginning.

It took four years for Payton to turn the Saints into champions the first time around, Brees may not be able to wait that long again.

Still, with the Saints the window for a second championship is once again open. And while all the pieces may not be in place like Brees says, especially on defense, at least there is some back in charge who know how to put together the puzzle.

• • •

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

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