As Black Monday in the NFL draws near, all thirty-two teams across the league will be evaluating their coaching staffs to see where they can improve or who they may lose to a new job. When the Saints fired Rob Ryan as their defensive coordinator, the Saints took the first step toward making some long overdue changes along the sidelines. While Sean Payton is still the right man for the job as head coach, there’s an issue that has developed over time by keeping coaches who aren’t delivering or by promoting existing coaches rather than searching for fitting replacements to fill vacancies. It’s time to take a long hard look at the entire coaching staff and make some upgrades. While there are countless directions the Saints could go in fixing their coaching staff, what follows is one scenario that should help resolve many of their issues.
DEFENSIVE COACHING STAFF
Defensive Coordinator: Jim Schwartz
Defensive Line: Pepper Johnson
Linebackers: Fred Pagac
Secondary/Asst Head Coach: Dennis Allen
While Dennis Allen does deserve credit for doing what he can with what he was given when he took over as the defensive coordinator mid-season, he’s not what the Saints truly need at the position at this point in time. No defense he has been in charge of either as a coordinator or head coach has had a respectable pass rush. Jim Schwartz can deliver that pass rush.
Prior to taking this season away from coaching, Schwartz spent the 2014 season as the defensive coordinator for the Buffallo Bills with Pepper Johnson and Fred Pagac overseeing his front seven. In their one season together in upstate New York, they led the league’s forth best defense including the third ranked passing defense and the eleventh ranked run defense. Their pass rush was also rated ninth in the league by Pro Football Focus.
Schwartz’s first stint as a defensive coordinator came in 2001 for the Tennessee Titans following the departure of Greg Williams. In his eight seasons in Nashville, Schwartz’s defenses turned in four top twelve performances. Despite his success as a coordinator continuing in Buffalo, Schwartz was let go after only one season due to the hiring of Rex Ryan as the new head coach of the Bills. Schwartz decided to use the 2015 season to rest and rejuvenate away from the sidelines before returning to coaching. He has remained a part of the game though, serving as a coach consultant to the league’s officiating office.
Schwartz made clear that he has no intention of rushing his return when he told the Dolphins he had no interest in being their defensive coordinator earlier this season after the firing of Joe Philbin. Reports are that Schwartz would like to return to coaching during this coming hiring cycle. If so, the Saints just might have an advantage. According to a report by Sports Illustrated, Schwartz has spent a great deal of time talking with Payton about his approach to the year he had away from the game in 2012. Payton must have some level of respect for Schwartz to spend so much time coaching him on how to use his newfound free time and Schwartz must respect Payton to be seeking his advice in such a significant way. That level of mutual respect has to make working together a very appealing option to both men, giving the Saints an advantage in acquiring Schwartz’s services.
Both Johnson and Pagac have also led successful careers of their own. Johnson’s time in the NFL started as a linebacker with the New York Giants. By the end of his thirteen year playing career in 1998 he had two Pro Bowl selections and an All-Pro selection to go with his two Super Bowl rings. After a season away from the game, Johnson began a fourteen year run with the Patriots coaching both their linebackers and defensive line. By the time he left New England for Buffalo after the 2013 season he had added three more Super Bowl rings to his collection. This season Johnson has been working the Jets sideline as the defensive line coach of the second best run defense in the league based on yards allowed.
After a couple random seasons as a backup tight end in the NFL, Pagac joined the coaching staff of the Ohio State Buckeyes in 1978. In his more than two decades with the program he worked as the team’s linebackers coach, the defensive coordinator and the assistant coach. In 2001 he moved on to the NFL, spending a handful of seasons with the Redskins and Chiefs that included a Super Bowl run. Pagac ended up landing with the Vikings for an eight season stretch starting in 2006. Most of that time was spent as the linebackers coach with one season as the defensive coordinator in 2011 following Leslie Frazier’s promotion to head coach. Under Pagac’s leadership the Vikings linebacking corps produced three Pro Bowl selections and an All-Pro nod. This season Pagac has been working as the outside linebackers coach for Denver’s top ranked defense. His players are among the most highly rated in the league at their position and are responsible for more than half of the Broncos’ sacks, hits and pressures on opposing quarterbacks this season.
While there may be better options to coach the secondary, Allen makes the most sense at this time. A big part of the entire reshaping process in New Orleans has been a focus on character. When Allen left the Saints for the defensive coordinator job in Denver after the 2010 season he left on good terms. When Payton decided to bring Allen back after four years away as his unofficial safety net at defensive coordinator, it showed that whatever trust and respect previously existed between the two is still there. Also, with the departure of Joe Vitt, Payton would likely want someone he knows and trusts to take on the role of assistant head coach. Given their years of history together and his experience as a head coach, Allen would be the logical choice.
OFFENSIVE COACHING STAFF
Offensive Coordinator: Pete Carmichael, Jr.
Quarterbacks: Joe Lombardi
Running Backs: Joel Thomas
Wide Receivers: Curtis “CJ” Johnson, Jr.
Tight Ends: Dan Roushar
Offensive Line: Sam Pittman
Unlike the defensive staff, there are several offensive coaches who are doing their jobs well and should be retained. Dan Roushar and Joel Thomas have done well with the personnel they have been given to work with. From Benjamin Watson’s career year to Mark Ingram’s development as a lead back and receiving threat, both men have proven their worth and deserve to stay in their current roles with the team.
Another member of the offensive staff that has proven he deserves to be retained is offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr. Despite a significant lack of seasoned receivers and chronic issues along the offensive line, he has managed to keep things on track well enough to once again have one of the top offenses in the league. There is however one change that needs to be made to his job duties. It’s time for Carmichael to take over as play-caller. It’s an idea that has been looked into several times by the Saints. Following Payton’s broken leg during their week 6 game at Tampa Bay, Carmichael took over play calling duties for the rest of the 2011 season. At season’s end the Saints once again found themselves with the top ranked offense in the league. He continued as the team’s play-caller for the 2012 season during Payton’s year-long suspension. Despite the awful tone of the entire season, the offense still ranked second best in the league with Carmichael calling the shots. Payton resumed play-calling duties when he returned to the team the following season, but Carmichael was again handed the reigns for the 2014 preseason while Payton was considering making the move a more permanent one. Carmichael has been a member of Payton’s staff since year one in New Orleans as well as his right hand in running the offense since 2009. The two have worked side-by-side long enough for Carmichael to know what Payton expects of his offense and how he wants it run. The time has come for Payton to stop considering it and make the move a reality.
One position coach on the offensive staff that absolutely must go is Bret Ingalls. After spending his first four seasons in New Orleans as the running backs coach, Ingalls was promoted to offensive line coach to fill the void left by the departure of Aaron Kromer. The unit that had drawn praise as one of the best in the league under Kromer has fallen into a state of disrepair under Ingalls’ leadership. In just three seasons, Ingalls’ lines have given up more sacks than all four years with Kromer as well as more than double the number of games with more than three sacks. The most troubling display of the unit’s current issues came early this season when Brees had to miss his first game due to injury since his junior year of high school. Sam Pittman has become known as one the best offensive line coaches in college football. The current Arkansas assistant head coach has twenty-three seasons of experience as an offensive line coach at the collegiate level with the past four spent in the SEC. During those four years his unit’s turned in three seasons in the top ten for both fewest sacks allowed and fewest tackles for a loss allowed in the country. Those same lines averaged five yards per carry on the ground (give or take a half yard). Pittman also has a talent for developing NFL line talent. In the past three drafts eight of his former players have been selected including two first-rounders. Bringing in a new face with the experience and results that Pittman has achieved could be the first step to restoring the offensive line to its former stature.
There’s also a pair of coaches who are simply treading water that could be upgraded this off-season. Mike Neu’s first stint with the Saints was as a scout from 2009 to 2011. He returned last season as the new quarterbacks coach after two seasons in the same position at Tulane. Both seasons he has been back on Airline Drive he’s had Brees and Luke McCown as his active quarterbacks, two men who require no developmental work at all. The one project Neu has had was Ryan Griffin who he had worked with during his senior season at Tulane. Griffin was unable to win the Saints’ backup quarterback role and was released after two seasons. With time growing shorter to find an heir to Brees, the Saints need a quarterback coach with experience developing talent, especially at the NFL level. Joe Lombardi spent seven seasons in New Orleans with the final five as the quarterbacks coach. During his time in that role he proved his ability to develop NFL level talent by shaping an undrafted Chase Daniel into a solid backup quarterback who has drawn interest as a potential starter. With New Orleans facing the possibility of having to develop another quarterback from scratch, bringing Lombardi back would be a definite upgrade over the largely inexperienced Neu.
The other coaching position that could be upgraded is at wide receiver. John Morton came to the Saints this off-season following the collapse of the 49ers’ coaching staff. Morton spent the past three seasons as the wide receivers coach in San Francisco. During his tenure the passing game dropped from twenty-third to thirtieth and the only receiver who rated well consistently was Anquan Boldin. Under Morton and his predecessor Henry Ellard the talent level of the wide receiver corps has withered significantly with Kenny Stills being the only reasonably solid product to come out of the last four seasons. The Saints need to upgrade the position by bringing back Curtis Johnson. Commonly known as “CJ” in the New Orleans area, Johnson was the first wide receivers coach of the Payton era following nearly twenty years of coaching the same position at the college level. Johnson is responsible for developing such players as Marques Colston, Lance Moore and Robert Meacham. In his six years as position coach, wide receiver was always one of the deepest on the Saints’ roster. New Orleans needs to bring back Johnson to ensure Brees never wants for receiving options again.
Many of the coaching changes discussed above involve new staff members with no previous connections to Payton. Since character and trust are such a key piece, a buffer would likely help smooth things over. Filling the assistant positions with recent former players could help bridge the gap. By using Payton’s former players it takes care of the trust issue while at the same time giving the new members of the staff assistants who know Payton’s expectations and his way of doing things. Some candidates to talk to would be Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Jabari Greer, Carl Nicks and Colston (assuming he is released after this season). It’s unlikely all of these would be interested in the position but any of them that could be added to the staff would be a benefit. It’s Time For A Coaching Overhaul In New Orleans