At 4-8, the 2015 Saints are staring down the barrel of their worst season under Sean Payton.
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The Saints’ defense is as bad as one might imagine an NFL defense can be. The offense, while capable, represents the least imposing unit under Payton’s direction. The special teams have suffered through a rotating cast of kickers, punters, and returners. Injuries have abounded. The roster is shallow, combining a core of older players with a collection of inexperience and youth. The Saints’ salary cap is in poor shape—among the league’s worst—and will remain stretched thin in 2016.
To these woes you can add uncertain futures for both the quarterback and the head coach.
Drew Brees is headed into the final year of the contract he signed in 2012. The Saints owe him a $19.75 million base salary next year that carries a daunting $30 million cap charge. Conventional wisdom says the Saints will extend Brees’s contract, mitigating the 2016 cap hit by signing Brees to a more team-friendly contract. With the Saints' 2016 salary cap already in poor shape, however, the Saints might let Brees play out his current contract and wait another year to determine his future with the franchise.
Less likely scenarios involve trading or cutting Brees after this season. Trading or cutting Brees would generate a significant cap savings that would shift the franchise full throttle into the wilderness of "rebuilding." Also unlikely, but possible, is that Brees will simply retire after this season.
Right now, you’re looking at: a.) Brees’s final four games as a Saint; b.) another contract that keeps Brees in New Orleans for another three years or so; or c.) a farewell tour in 2016 as he plays out his current contract.
Intertwined with this is Sean Payton’s future as the Saints’ head coach. Payton is under contract in New Orleans for 2016 and 2017, though that does not preclude him from leaving at the end of this season. The rumors of Payton departing New Orleans have been consistent (if not rampant) this season, and with all the smoke, there’s probably a fire lurking somewhere. Does Payton want a fresh start elsewhere next year? Is he angling for a contract extension in New Orleans in the face of a tenuous ownership situation? Is the NFL media just drumming up filler because it sells?
For his part, Sean Payton has steadfastly maintained his commitment to New Orleans all along this year. During games, he’s been animated and intense and engaged for the most part. By his words and actions Payton looks invested in the Saints, though these final four games might change his mind. It's not out of the question that Payton is keeping his options open while his value is high, all the while attempting to mask those intentions.
If Payton stays in New Orleans, he is faced with rebuilding his defense (again) while continuing to overhaul the roster with talent and youth. Though the 2015 draft has produced positive results for the Saints, they’ve been blunted by the contracts the Saints have recently dispensed.
No contract failure is more glaring than that of Junior Galette, who hoodwinked the Saints before getting cut and saddling the team with a load of dead money. Lucrative contracts for Jimmy Graham, Jairus Byrd, Brandon Browner, CJ Spiller, and Keenan Lewis have not proven worthy either. For a premium price, the Saints have received middling-to-poor returns and a bloated salary cap. Those results might reside in the wisdom of signing said players, yet they also might point in another direction: coaching.
Why have players with extensive track records of success like Byrd, Browner, and Spiller failed--some spectacularly--in New Orleans? Are they damaged goods? Past their primes? Unmotivated? Or are they miscast and poorly prepared?
When you consider this in the context of former Saints having success in new locales—notably Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, and Patrick Robinson—it’s fair to question whether the Saints’ coaches are capable of properly utilizing the resources at their disposal.
Looking ahead, not only do the Saints need better players on their roster, they also need better coaches on their staff. I’d argue that the coaching element is more important, especially with a roster that will be getting younger.
With four games remaining this season, the Saints face as much uncertainty as they have since early 2012. Big changes are ahead. Sean Payton has been with the team for ten seasons, an eternity for an NFL head coach. Drew Brees will soon be 37 and pondering his NFL endgame and life after football. The roster rebuild will continue. A defensive reboot will once again be on the way.
The Saints’ final four games won’t simply impact the team’s 2016 draft position, they will influence whether Sean Payton and/or Drew Brees return in 2016. If this is the last we see of the Payton-Brees combo in New Orleans, enjoy it.
It has been one hell of a fun ride.