The 2012 New Orleans Saints were supposed to be the perfect test case for the value of pro football coaches. With Sean Payton suspended for the season for his role in Roger Goodell's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Bounty Scandal, Drew Brees and the Saints would be at relatively full strength on the field but callow on the sidelines. Back in March, I wrote that Payton, "universally thought of as a play-calling genius, has gotten much of the credit for the team's turnaround over the last five years. If the Saints keep on winning without him on the sidelines, he'll suffer yet another blow to his reputation. In the end, Payton will have been exposed as arrogant, irrational, and—worst of all—inessential."
OK, let's strike inessential from that list. After losing 28-27 to the Packers on Sunday, the Saints are now 0-4, having lost by a combined 20 points to a quartet of teams—Washington, Carolina, Kansas City, and Green Bay—with a combined two wins against non-fleur-de-lis-wearing competition. In each of the Saints' losses, interim interim coach Aaron Kromer—the real interim coach, Joe Vitt, is himself suspended for the first six games—and his team have made small mistakes that could be attributable to bad (or at least inexperienced) coaching. In Week 1, the Saints' comeback against the Redskins stalled on account of a fourth-down 12-men-on-the-field penalty. At Lambeau Field this past weekend, Kromer signaled for his final timeout with the Saints on defense and 2:44 left on the clock. If he'd waited to call timeout until after the two-minute warning, the Saints would have saved 40 seconds.
That boneheaded clock management didn't end up mattering, as the Packers picked up a first down anyway. And that, ultimately, is the problem with blaming the Saints' bad start on the absence of Sean Payton or the presence of Aaron Kromer: The New Orleans defense is so terrible that it makes the team's other problems seem picayune by comparison.
The 2012 Saints haven't been the perfect test case for the importance of coaching because there can never be any such thing. An NFL game is an equation with hundreds of variables. Yes, Sean Payton is pretty clearly a better head coach than Aaron Kromer, and, yes, the Saints might have beaten the Packers if they had someone sharper on the sidelines. But if Darren Sproles hadn't dropped a short pass late in the fourth quarter, the Saints probably would have kept their season alive with a huge road win. And if Malcolm Jenkins hadn't poked Aaron Rodgers in the eye, or if the non-replacement refs hadn't made a horrible call in the Saints' favor, the Packers probably would've won by a touchdown or more. The guy in the headset had nothing to do with any of that stuff.
The Saints' big problem is the same one that's bedeviled the team throughout Payton's tenure: They have to score an appalling number of points to offset the fact that they can't stop anyone. In honor of Aaron Schatz's presence in the roundtable this week, I'll cite Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings. So far in 2012, the Saints are 21st in the league in DVOA—11th on offense and 28th on defense. In last year's final rankings, the Saints were second in offensive DVOA and, again, 28th on defense. In the 2009 regular season, after which New Orleans and bounty maestro Gregg Williams won the Super Bowl, the team was second on offense and a more respectable 14th on defense—a ranking fueled less by Williams' obsession with head-killing than by then-safety Darren Sharper's mysterious ability to return interceptions for touchdowns.
For whatever reason, the Payton-era Saints have been as inept at finding playmakers on defense as they have been adept at plugging them in on offense. It's not new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's fault that there might not be a single Saints defender who would start on a top-tier NFL squad. (That might be a little harsh on the team’s starting corners, but Patrick Robinson and Jabari Greer are not Darrelle Revis.) Even if Sean Payton was around in non-banner form to glower and yell, "Do your job!" the safeties would still be mistake prone, the linebackers slow and ineffectual, the pass rushers unable to rush the passer. For the Saints to win, Drew Brees and the offense can't make any mistakes, and they've made a few more than usual this year. (Most logical explanation: The receiving corps is much weaker with Robert Meachem gone and Marques Colston hobbled.) And then, sometimes, Brees throws for 446 yards and three touchdowns and they still lose. Defense doesn't win championships, but absolutely god-awful defense will prevent you from contending for them.
So where does that leave the Saints? In the middle of the pack, with all the other NFL teams that do some things right and one thing horribly wrong. When Payton returns in 2013, the Saints will likely run more smoothly and won't make as many mistakes. That should be enough to improve them on the margins. But unless Sean Payton can tackle, the Saints need a lot more help than their old head coach can give them.