The 2017 season will be Sean Payton's 12th as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints. Should his tenure extend beyond this season? The Court of Public Opinion, where everyone has his or her own views along with his or her own facts, will debate this issue.
Representing the pro-Payton faction, zooming on a golden flying carpet adorned with black Fleur-de-lis is Bubba. He has worn the same cap and t-shirt commemorating the victory in Super Bowl XLIV every day. Both were originally black. After so many daily wearings and weekly washings for more than seven years, they are now heather gray in color. Somehow, despite dozens of re-stitchings, they are barely holding together.
On the other side is Buddy, the president of the Down-to-Earth Club. He has still not forgotten the three-game slide at the end of 2009 despite the Super Bowl victory during that season. He is wearing his “I Hate the Falcons” t-shirt born from losing twice to Atlanta in the span of three weeks due to Hail Mary passes in 1978. Additionally, he has donned a paper bag on his head denoting the 1-15 record of the Saints in 1980.
Bubba: I can’t wait for the season to start. I’m ready to watch the Saints go 16-0 on their way to win the NFC South and NFC title! I’ve already booked a hotel for early February in Minneapolis.
Buddy: Unless you’re going there for the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, you’re wasting your time and money. Besides you’re going to miss some of the early Carnival parades in New Orleans.
Bubba: Of course they can go to the playoffs. They still have Drew Brees! He has finished first or second in the NFL in completions and passing yards in each of the past four seasons.
Buddy: Of course, Brees has thrown the ball so much. The Saints don’t have any choice. They can’t run the ball!
Bubba: What are you talking about? They averaged 108.9 rushing yards per game last season! That scored 17 rushing touchdowns. That was tied for sixth in the NFL. Mark Ingram gained 1,043 yards on the ground, good for 11th in the league.
Buddy: 2016 was an outlier. Ingram was the Saints’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006! Their average rushing yards per game was below 100 in three of the past four seasons. Payton bails out of the running game so quickly.
Bubba: In the past three years, the Saints have scored at least 16 rushing touchdowns per season. They have been ranked sixth or higher in that category. Doesn’t scoring a lot of touchdowns count for more than just piling up yardage?
Buddy: They had to score a lot of touchdowns just to be competitive. Regardless what Brees and the offense accomplishes, they can’t carry this team to the playoffs. In case you didn’t notice, they don’t play defense. The Saints’ defense can’t stop anyone. Payton can’t find anyone to fix that side of the ball.
Bubba: They held opponents under 30 points in 10 games in 2016. If they can do that, they should win every time. Brees and crew can easily score more than 30 per game.
Buddy: Can they match that this year? Even when they held the opponent under 30 points, they still lost six of those games. Last season, they allowed the sixth-highest total yards per game (375.4) and most passing yards (273.8) per game. And only one more team in the league gave up more points per game than the Saints' 28.4!
Bubba: We have great draft picks that will shore up the defense. They spent a first-round pick on a cornerback (Marshon Lattimore), a second-round pick on a safety (Marcus Williams), a third-round pick on a linebacker (Alex Anzalone), all of whom played in a major conference. Plus they picked up two more defenders, a linebacker (Trey Hendrickson) in the third round and a defensive lineman (Al-Quadin Muhammad) in the sixth.
Buddy: We heard the same rave reviews in the past. None of the six picks from the 2014 draft are still on the team. Only two of the five from 2013 remain. None of five from 2012 are in New Orleans. Out of six selections in 2011, only two are still Saints. Why would you have in faith in the front office to select great players who will contribute to winning?
Bubba: Don’t forget about their first-round pick in the 2015 draft, Stephone Anthony. He scored the first defensive conversion in NFL history!
Buddy: So he scored two points. Whoop-dee-do! It takes a lot more than that to finish with a winning record. Besides, he spent much of last season on the bench. He only played in 10 games because he can’t handle playing strong-side linebacker then ended up injured in December.
Bubba: Payton can coach up those on the roster like he always has done.
Buddy: It’s time to let Payton go. The franchise has stagnated under his leadership. Maybe the Saints can trade him for some draft picks. Better yet, maybe some worthwhile players since they keep botching high draft picks.
Bubba: How can you say that? He had more success in his first year than the franchise had ever experienced. He equaled the number of playoff wins in the previous 40 seasons and made the first trip to an NFC title game.
Buddy: So he had a great first year. It was beginner's luck.
Bubba: He has had more than one great year. He has led them to the playoffs five times, more than any other Saints head coach. He also has six postseason wins, more than all other previous Saints head coaches combined. He has led them to the NFC title game twice. He also led them to the their first Super Bowl and won it!
Buddy: What has he done since then?
Bubba: They have gone to the playoffs three times.
Buddy: What about the last three years, 7-9 every year?
Bubba: The Saints only missed winning the NFC South by half a game in 2014.
Buddy: Carolina won the division with a record of 7-8-1 that year. Don’t count on having a chance to win the division with a losing record on a regular basis.
Bubba: You have to believe. Payton has had much success in the past. He can do it again.
Buddy: If that’s true, he can start by ending this current decline.
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.