New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton has no timetable set for decisions on coaching staff

Posted by Mike Triplett, The Times-Picayune December 29, 2008 10:54PM

Saints coach Sean Payton didn’t offer any drastic solutions for improving his team Monday after missing out on the playoffs for the second straight year with a disappointing 8-8 record.

He chafed at the idea of making defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs a scapegoat, though he also declined an opportunity to offer a vote of confidence to the assistant coach, who has become a prime target of the fans’ displeasure after the team’s last-place finish in the NFC South.

“I’m not going to answer the question right now,” Payton said at his season-ending news conference when asked specifically whether he intends to keep Gibbs as his defensive coordinator, “because I think the day after the season ends, it’s like, ‘What’s Deuce (McAllister’s) future? Are you keeping Gary Gibbs?’ We’re not answering those questions.

“It’s unfair. It’s unfair to Gary. It’s unfair to point out specific players and coaches.”

Gibbs was not available for comment.

Earlier in his news conference, Payton complimented Gibbs’ performance during a season that saw the Saints lose both starting cornerbacks, Mike McKenzie and Tracy Porter, and starting defensive end Charles Grant to injuries.

Payton did suggest that improvements need to be made across the board on defense — from scheme to personnel to individual performance.

But he said those same improvements need to be made on offense and special teams, even though the Saints’ offense ranked first in the NFL in yards gained and points scored. The team ranked 23rd and 26th in the league in those categories on defense.

“It would be easy to say, with where we finished offensively, we’re going to point to defense. Some of that might be true,” Payton said. “But there are some things that we have to be better at offensively. We had an opportunity to really put the game away at Washington (in Week 2) and were unable to run the football in a key situation. We were unable to get that key yard in Denver (in Week 3). So this doesn’t all just shift to one side of the ball or the other, (even though) it’s easy to do that. It’s still looking closely at how we can improve our overall team.

“This is an important part of the year, because this is where a mistake made can set you back, or the right decision can set you forward. So we take it very seriously.”

An opening among coaches

That decision-making process has already begun for Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and the Saints’ front office. Assistant coaches will be given the rest of this week off before returning to work next week to review the season and plan ahead to the 2009 campaign.

Payton said he has no timetable for making any decisions about his coaching staff.

Even if the Saints decide to keep all of their current assistants, they do have to replace former offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Doug Marrone, who left to become head coach at Syracuse University this month.

Most likely, current quarterbacks coach Pete Carmichael will be promoted to offensive coordinator and current line coach Aaron Kromer will remain in the position, leaving a vacancy at the lower-assistant level.

Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron has been a rumored candidate for assistant coaching jobs at LSU or the University of Tennessee, though he said Monday that he has no plans to interview with either school.

“I’m with the Saints,” Orgeron said.

Most of the defense’s current players should be back in 2009. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, so re-signing him will be the team’s top priority. A handful of backups will also become free agents: safety Josh Bullocks, cornerback Aaron Glenn, defensive tackle Antwan Lake and linebacker Troy Evans, among them.

Grant, Porter and McKenzie all could return to the starting lineup if their recoveries go according to plan. McKenzie, who fractured his right kneecap last month, is the biggest question mark because of his age, 32, and recent injury history. But he said Monday that he is ahead of schedule and plans to be 100 percent before the start of training camp.

Missed plays

McKenzie was one of several defensive players polled Sunday and Monday who suggested that the Saints need to play better on defense, but drastic changes aren’t necessary to either the scheme, the coaching staff or the personnel.

“I don’t think so. But nothing in this league surprises me,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “On one hand, you can expect change. Year in and year out, you can always expect to see new faces. That’s part of the game. But I like the guys, and we’ll be getting a lot of guys back from injury.”

“You can’t really say the scheme is wrong, because obviously it worked eight times. We won eight games,” said cornerback Randall Gay, who joined the Saints this past offseason after four years in New England. “And we were close in a lot of games, so you can’t really blame anything on the scheme. What it comes down to is the players making plays. That’s what it is.

“You can blame it on us being in position to make plays and not making them, which really doomed us this season. Almost every game, when a big play was made, it wasn’t like we were getting ran by and getting beat with 80-yard bombs. We were in position to make plays, and we just didn’t make it.”

That was certainly the case in the Saints’ final two defeats, when they lost in overtime at Chicago on a deep pass interference penalty in Week 15, and when they lost Sunday at home to Carolina after receiver Steve Smith caught a 39-yard jump ball against two defenders to set up the Panthers’ game-winning field goal.

If the Saints had just won those two games — or any other two games along the way — they’d be in the playoffs.

“The one thing that’s been noticeable, we’ve got to tackle better and we’ve got to cover better,” said defensive end Bobby McCray, who joined the Saints this year as a free agent from Jacksonville. “We had a good scheme this year. I would rather see if we could just give them some new looks, just mix it up a little bit, kind of confuse the offense a little bit, just do some different things at times. Other than that, Gary Gibbs did a good job calling the plays. We’ve just got to execute our assignments.”

Payton took ownership of the Saints’ defensive philosophy, saying it’s the defense both he and Gibbs chose to install when they arrived in 2006 from the staff of the Dallas Cowboys.

“It’s a similar scheme that we see in Atlanta and a similar scheme that we see in Tampa Bay,” Payton said. “It’s a 4-3 scheme that a good portion of the league implements and uses, and now it’s finding the pieces to make it go.”

Valuable additions

Although it didn’t lead to substantial improvement on defense, the Saints were actually quite successful with each of their defensive additions in 2008. Veteran newcomers Vilma, Gay and McCray were all productive, as were rookies Porter and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, the team’s first-round draft pick, who missed significant time because of injury.

The Saints no doubt will look to add significant upgrades in free agency and the draft, where they hold the 14th pick in Round 1. They aren’t expected to have picks in the second or third rounds, though, based on trades they made this past offseason.

Payton said he and Loomis have always shared a philosophy of being “judicious” when it comes to “so-called high-priced free agents,” which suggests that the Saints aren’t looking to break the bank for one defensive star.

Undoubtedly, they would show interest in Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha if he becomes available, because he is regarded as one of the best players in the league at one of the Saints’ greatest need positions. But chances are they won’t be in the market for someone like Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis or Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers.

Among some of the intriguing names on the next tier of potential defensive free agents are Philadelphia safety Brian Dawkins, Chicago safety Mike Brown, St. Louis safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson, Baltimore linebacker/end Terrell Suggs and Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby.

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