New Orleans Saints: Sean Payton

METAIRIE, La. -- Though it might be hard to believe with all the family drama that has erupted over the past two days, team owner Tom Benson's intent was to ensure stability and continuity for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans franchises.

Those might seem like odd word choices, considering that Benson, 87, is now in a high-profile, high-stakes legal battle with his daughter and grandchildren, who levied scathing accusations about Benson’s mental capacity and the intentions of his wife, Gayle, in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

But "stability" and "continuity" were precisely the terms used to describe Benson's decision to transfer ownership of his vast business empire to Gayle upon his death.

Multiple sources within the two sports franchises, both on and off the record, applauded the move. Many believe the transition will be much smoother if Gayle Benson becomes owner instead of Tom Benson’s daughter, Renee Benson, and grandchildren Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc.

[+] EnlargeTom Benson
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsThe decision of Tom Benson (center) to transfer ownership of the Saints and Pelicans to his wife, Gayle (left), upon his death has set off a high-stakes legal battle.
The two most important aspects of that transition are the franchises’ long-term security in New Orleans and the current power structure remaining intact, led by president Dennis Lauscha and executive vice president/general manager Mickey Loomis.

"Continuity is very important, and this plan ensures that," Benson said in a statement released by the Saints on Thursday. "We have had the same management team in place that oversees both teams for a number of years. It has proven to be successful and it works. Dennis and Mickey will continue to run the operations as they have done day-to-day for the last 10 years or so. They consult with me daily, but they will continue to have the same authority they have always had with making decisions, large and small, and this will continue even when Gayle becomes owner."

"We have nothing but [Tom Benson's] unequivocal support, and that is important. We have been a successful franchise because of it. Nothing will change with that when Mrs. Benson becomes the owner," Loomis said in a statement released Thursday morning. "That stability creates an environment so that players and coaches want to come here."

Benson had long intended to groom his granddaughter as his successor, but multiple sources indicated that Rita Benson LeBlanc never developed into the protégé he hoped she would -- with inconsistency in her attendance, accountability and interest level in team matters.

The concern with her being thrust into the position of ultimate power is more about unpredictability than anything else, according to sources.

Sources confirmed that ownership uncertainty was a concern during negotiations for Saints coach Sean Payton’s most recent contract extension, which was signed in January 2013. The NFL initially denied a clause that would allow Payton to break the contract if Loomis was ever fired, suspended or left the organization.

Gayle Benson, 67, is widely liked and respected throughout the organizations, according to sources both on and off the record. Pelicans coach Monty Williams and Saints players Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham were among those who praised her on Thursday.

So the plan to transfer ownership was met with a sigh of relief throughout the Saints and Pelicans organizations on Wednesday night, according to multiple sources -- at least until Thursday afternoon, when Benson’s family fought back with the lawsuit.

There are also legal issues involving the family trust that could make an ownership change difficult. Ideas of any sort of “smooth transition” are pretty much out the window for now as the two sides appear set for a lengthy legal battle.

What’s being contested now is why Benson was motivated to push his daughter and grandchildren out. The lawsuit alleges his declining mental capacity and the growing influence of Gayle Benson are the leading causes -- claims that Benson denied in a statement Thursday night.

The lawsuit also stresses that Gayle Benson has never owned, operated or managed a substantial business enterprise, has not received any formal training on how to do so and stated publicly that she had no interest in football, basketball or sports in general before marrying Tom Benson.

Meanwhile Rita Benson LeBlanc, 38, began working with the Saints full-time in 2001 and held the title of owner/vice chairman of the board before being fired in late December for unspecified reasons. She was listed in the team’s media guide as the second-highest ranking executive overseeing management alongside Tom Benson.

She regularly attends league owners meetings and votes along with larger ownership groups. She has chaired the NFL Employee Benefits committee, among other committees she has served on with both the NFL and NBA.

However, Benson LeBlanc was not involved with the day-to-day operations of the sports teams. Her role was more in the realm of community and marketing endeavors and public appearances, according to sources.

The Times-Picayune reported in 2012 that Benson LeBlanc was placed on an unofficial paid administrative leave by Tom Benson, which one source confirmed. Benson LeBlanc has been characterized by sources and that 2012 Times-Picayune report as smart and talented, but also unfocused and abrasive at times. Sources confirmed that TP report that she had gone through 30-plus assistants over the past decade.

Benson’s daughter and grandson were based out of Texas and rarely spent any time around the sports franchises. In fact, sources indicated that tension grew when Renee Benson began to spend more time around the franchises this past summer.

Although the lawsuit claims that the "petitioners have done nothing to provoke any of the above, unjustified actions and have sought and still seek to reconcile with" Benson, sources described Benson’s decision as one that had been brewing over recent years and months as he battled more frequent health issues -- and that the family relationships continued to worsen in recent months.

It was widely known, according to sources, that Rita Benson LeBlanc and Gayle Benson did not get along -- a relationship that never improved and ultimately forced Tom Benson to make a decision between the two as he evaluated the future of the franchises.

The details of the lawsuit filed against Benson on Thursday also paint the picture of a gradual but intense deterioration of the family relationships.

“This is something I have thought about and prayed about for a while now,” Benson said in his statement, adding that his recent knee surgeries have “given me time to reflect on a number of issues that we will face in the distant future.”
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MOBILE, Ala. -- Coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis weren't messing around when they promised change this offseason.

The New Orleans Saints made three of their most significant moves to date Tuesday with the firing of longtime college scouting director Rick Reiprish and the reported additions of Dennis Allen to their defensive coaching staff and Jeff Ireland to their front office (both according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter).

The Saints have not yet confirmed or explained the reasoning behind any of the moves -- though Loomis said he'll visit with the media Wednesday during Senior Bowl practices.

Allen's return is the splashiest. But the front-office moves may cause even bigger ripples because the Saints also lost top personnel man Ryan Pace and one of their top scouts Josh Lucas to the Chicago Bears.

It's unclear exactly what Ireland's role will be with the Saints, but he'll likely become a huge part of the college scouting process right away because Pace, Reiprish and Lucas were three of the four highest-ranking college talent evaluators in the scouting department (not including Loomis and Payton).

That's quite a shift this late into the college-scouting process. But it comes at a time when Payton and Loomis both made it clear that they felt like change was necessary at every level of the organization -- and Loomis had specifically mentioned personnel evaluation as one of the areas they have to look at with a critical eye.

So whether or not the Saints intended for a shake-up of this magnitude, they've now got one.

Ireland's tenure as general manager of the Miami Dolphins from 2008-13 ended unceremoniously when he and the team announced a mutual parting of ways after five consecutive non-winning seasons.

But Payton, in particular, knows Ireland well because they are both disciples of Bill Parcells and worked together with the Dallas Cowboys from 2003-05. Parcells was the one who promoted Ireland to his first GM job when Parcells took over the Dolphins' football operations.

As for why the Saints fired Reiprish after 11 years with the organization, even he seemed a little lost for an answer after saying he was caught by surprise when Loomis informed him of the move Tuesday afternoon in Mobile.

However, Reiprish's role had slightly diminished in recent years. Pace began overseeing both the pro and college scouting departments in 2012 instead of just the pro department. And a source said Tuesday that Reiprish's role had quietly been reduced even further during the 2014 season -- though Reiprish said the amount of schools he visited declined only slightly.

One popular theory among fans Tuesday was that Reiprish was being held accountable for the lack of production the Saints got from their 2014 draft class -- but that seems unlikely because Reiprish's role was diminishing even before that class was assembled.

Reiprish had been with the Saints since 2004, mostly as their lead college scout -- and he was widely credited for his role during the greatest period of success in franchise history. The Saints drafted 10 Pro Bowlers during his tenure -- including three in the remarkable 2006 draft class that produced Roman Harper, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston -- not to mention Zach Strief and two guys thriving in other places, Reggie Bush and Rob Ninkovich.

And Reiprish had worked with Loomis even longer -- first working together with the Seattle Seahawks in the 1980s.

"It was a good run," Reiprish said. "A lot of good teams, a lot of good personnel moves. But not good enough when you go 7-9. I don't know where my role fit into that. But expectations are a little higher [with the Saints]. …

"I don't have any hard feelings. I've known Mickey for 30 years, he gave me a solid job, we won a Super Bowl. I wish him the best. He made a decision, a hard decision, I respect that. Whether I agree with that or not, that's something else."

That "7-9" explanation is the best one for all of the moves the Saints have made so far this offseason -- including the decision to part ways with longtime tight ends coach Terry Malone, receivers coach Henry Ellard and assistant secondary coach Andre Curtis.

The Saints ultimately decided to keep defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, despite the defense's stunning collapse in 2014 (31st in the NFL in yards allowed and dead last in efficiency, according to ESPN Stats & Information). But bringing in Allen certainly signals that they won't settle for the status quo.

Allen served as the Saints' secondary coach when they won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season -- before he went on to become the Denver Broncos' defensive coordinator and the Oakland Raiders' head coach.

It's unclear what Allen's role will be with the Saints and how much influence he'll have along with Ryan, whom he's never worked with before.

But I talked with several people who have worked with Allen in the past during practices in Mobile on Tuesday. And they almost universally described him as extremely intelligent and well-respected by players. Two of them predicted Allen will have a "calming influence" over a defense that had so many young, talented players who underachieved in 2014.

Editor's note: Parcells and Ireland reportedly had a falling out in 2011; the assumption in the original version of this story that Parcells would have highly recommended Ireland has been removed.
METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints' 2014 offense was an enigma.

They finished first in the NFL with 411.4 yards per game. They had more first downs than any team in the league. They had the best third-down conversion rate. And quarterback Drew Brees wound up tied with Ben Roethlisberger for the most passing yards at 4,952.

Yet the offense was also a liability at times, especially because of its 30 turnovers, which tied for fifth in the NFL.

Put simply, the Saints played bad complementary football. Their offense was hurt by a poor defense and mediocre return game, which rarely gave them the ball back in good field position (the Saints had the third-worst field position in the league, per ESPN Stats & Information).

But the offense also hurt the defense with all of those turnovers.

Coach Sean Payton seemed properly conflicted when reviewing the offensive numbers on Monday.

“Look, the numbers were real good on third down, the numbers were good in the red area, the total offensive numbers were good. The turnovers were poor. And I thought the rushing numbers ended up probably just where they’re at, a little bit better than the middle of the league,” Payton said. “I think that, A: that ball security -- especially in the last half of the season -- I think hurt us at times. I think we’ve gotta be a little bit more consistent. The third-down numbers were encouraging. But overall there’s a team element to winning games.

“I think the balance helps the defense, I think the ball security helps the defense. We’ve got a real good punter, someone we feel like can change the field position for us, and a good coverage group there. So I think, look, it has not been about stats for us, it’s been about wins and losses. And really, like I mentioned to the team today, there are some muddy hands in this room and they probably go across the board. Not just on one side of the ball or the other.”

Here’s a look at where the Saints ranked in key statistical categories this season:

OFFENSE:
Total yards: 1st (411.4 per game)
Passing yards: 3rd (297.8 per game)
Rushing yards: 13th (113.6 per game)
Third-down conversions: 1st (48.3 percent)
Red-zone touchdowns: 6th (60.0 percent)
Turnovers (giveaways): 5th most (30)
Sacks allowed: tie-9th fewest (30)
Overall efficiency (per ESPN Stats & Info): 7.8 expected points added per game (5th)

DEFENSE:
Total yards: 31st (384.0 per game)
Passing yards: 25th (251.2 per game)
Rushing yards: 29th (132.8 per game)
Third-down conversions: 31st (46.1 percent)
Red-zone touchdowns: 30th (62.8 percent)
Turnovers (takeaways): 28th (17)
Sacks: 25th (34)
Overall efficiency (per ESPN Stats & Info): minus-8.0 expected points added per game (32nd)

TEAM:
Points scored: 9th (25.1 per game)
Points allowed: 28th (26.5 per game)
Turnover ratio: 31st (minus-13)
Time of possession: tie-17th (30:03 per game)

INDIVIDUALS:
QB Drew Brees: 4,952 passing yards (tie-1st), 33 TDs (tie-5th), 17 INTs (tie-3rd most), 69.2 completion percentage (2nd), 97.0 passer rating (6th), 71.6 Total QBR (6th)
RB Mark Ingram: 964 rushing yards (14th), 9 rushing TDs (tie-3rd)
TE Jimmy Graham: 85 receptions (tie-13th), 10 receiving TDs (tie-12th), 889 receiving yards (35th)
WR Kenny Stills: 931 receiving yards (30th)
WR Marques Colston: 902 receiving yards (33rd)
LB Curtis Lofton: 145 tackles (4th)
OLB Junior Galette: 10.0 sacks (tie-15th), 3 forced fumbles (tie-14th)
DE Cameron Jordan: 7.5 sacks (tie-31st)
CB Keenan Lewis: 13 pass defenses (tie-18th)
METAIRIE, La. -- Not counting the 2012 season when Sean Payton was suspended, this is actually the first time the New Orleans Saints coach has missed the playoffs since 2008.

It’s not something he wants to make a habit of.

[+] EnlargeSean Payton
AP Photo/Bill Haber"Listen, it stinks losing. Honestly, there's a pit in your stomach, you know. I hate it," Sean Payton said.
“Listen, it stinks losing. Honestly, there’s a pit in your stomach, you know. I hate it,” Payton said during Monday's end-of-season news conference. “It’s because so much time and energy is put into that upcoming season and the process. And really, it’s one thing to be removed from the process for a year without any control. But to be in this position here, having this meeting on the eve of the week of the first round of the playoffs, it’s been a while. And it’s not something that you want to experience again. And it’s something that drives you, fuels your fire, if you will. And there’s nothing worse. It’s a bad feeling.

“It’s the opposite of how it feels when you have success and you win in the postseason. There’s a euphoria that goes with that. And listen, that disappointment is something that motivates you.”

Here are some more leftover morsels from Payton’s presser:

No '2013 hangover': Payton was asked if he felt any similarity to this season and the Saints’ “Super Bowl hangover” year of 2010 -- the idea being that the team didn’t have the same sense of urgency or intensity after feeling good about where it was.

Defensive players and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, especially, have added to that notion by admitting that they “drank the Kool-Aid” with so much preseason hype surrounding their young unit.

“Honestly, and I say this in a very humble way, I hope that none of us feel like the ‘13 season was one where we were ready to have a second Mardi Gras parade,” Payton said of last season, in which the Saints went 11-5 and reached the second round of the playoffs as a wild-card team. “Look, we made the postseason, we had a chance to win the division and we couldn’t finish at the end at Carolina. And we got a playoff win, I recognize that was a big deal. But our aspirations are higher than that.”

More than just four plays away: Drew Brees talked this week about the fine line between a 7-9 season and an 11-5 season, pointing out that the Saints were just “one play away” from winning four early-season games that they actually led with less than two minutes in regulation. But Payton said not being able to finish those games was one of the Saints’ biggest problems this year.

“Listen, let’s not kid ourselves,” Payton said. “Yeah, we were a play or two away from winning a few of those games, and yet that repeated itself a handful of times. The year before, we were a play or two from potentially losing a few games, and we didn’t. Now, does a team gain some success from some tough early wins? Yeah, absolutely. But I think our ability to finish, that would be one thing that wasn’t present this year, that wasn’t consistently good enough.”
New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton disagreed -- at least partially -- with the popular narrative of the Saints going “all-in” to win this past season.

That became a popular description since the Saints spent big on free-agent safety Jairus Byrd, traded up in the first round for receiver Brandin Cooks and pushed back a hefty amount of salary-cap costs into 2015 and beyond. But as Payton correctly pointed out, that’s not much different than the way the Saints have operated the past three years in a row.

Payton
Payton
“We were 'all-in'? Describe that,” Payton said, to which the reporter offered the comparison of pushing all the chips into the middle of a poker table.

“It’s a mythical term because every year we’re pushing all of our chips to the table and reloading,” Payton said. “And so I don’t even know how to answer the question. We’re trying to build, and we have been able to build a sustainable program that competes year in and year out for championships. And obviously this year was disappointing, but No. 1, we don’t have chips and there’s no poker room. It’s about winning games and being consistent about doing that.

“And I think that the stability that we’ve had from an ownership, general manager, head coach, those are things that give you a chance. They don’t guarantee it, they give you a chance. But as you look around the league, there are places that are dysfunctional, that every two or three years they find themselves back to square one. And so being functional is something that you just can’t take for granted. It requires a lot of work, requires attention to detail, and that’s where we’re at.”

The Saints are projected to begin 2015 with a salary-cap figure of $161.3 million, the highest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- and possibly $20 million over the NFL's cap, which has not been set yet.

However, the Saints have been in a similar boat in recent years and shouldn't have much problem managing the cap again this offseason. Among their options: restructuring deals to push back cap costs into future years, releasing veteran players they feel are expendable and possibly working out pay cuts.

 
METAIRIE, La. -- Figuring out how to make tight end Jimmy Graham more dominant going forward has to be a top priority for Graham and the New Orleans Saints this offseason.

Graham’s ineffectiveness over the past five games was one of the Saints’ biggest letdowns -- though it was one of many.

He had just 20 catches for 219 yards and one touchdown over the final five games, including a career-high three dropped passes in a Week 14 loss to Carolina and a controversial goal-line fumble in a Week 16 loss to Atlanta.

[+] EnlargeKemal Ishmael
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisJimmy Graham faded down the stretch, catching just 20 passes for 219 yards over the final five games.
Graham’s lingering shoulder issue was clearly one factor. But it couldn’t have been the only factor. Graham still had some big games after the injury, when he scored six touchdowns over a five-game stretch from Weeks 8-12. He still showed plenty of his usual physicality and aggression in games at Carolina and vs. San Francisco, in particular.

As Graham explained last week, it was something he had to fight through all year after first suffering the injury in Week 5. But neither Graham nor coach Sean Payton gave any indication that it affected him more down the stretch, when his production started to fizzle.

“There was no secret,” Payton said Monday when asked if he could reveal whether the injury was bothering Graham more than the team let on, now that the season is over.

“It gradually got a little better, but I honestly think that he was having to deal with that for quite a while,” Payton said. “Obviously it affected him, but to what degree it was causing him pain (in Week 17) or the week before, I wouldn’t know that. … I think he would be able to answer to what degree it was still potentially affecting him later in the year. It was significant for a good middle point of the season, though.”

The bigger detriment to Graham’s success might have been the way defenses approached him. Graham said he always has to deal with safeties shadowing him over the top or cheating his way. That's part of the reason why the Saints couldn’t get the ball downfield to the three-time Pro Bowler like they had in past years.

Perhaps it also hurt when they lost dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks to a thumb injury, allowing defenses to devote even more resources to bracketing Graham. But those downfield throws were a season-long issue for the entire passing offense.

Graham’s 85 catches and 10 touchdowns were in line with his career averages. But his yardage was way down, with a total of 889 yards on a career-low 10.5 yards per catch.

The Saints needed to get a lot more out of Graham than that -- especially since they don’t have a bona fide “No. 1 receiver” on the roster.

I wrote several times during Graham’s contract standoff this past offseason about how I believe he can be just as impactful as most No. 1 receivers in the NFL. I ranked Graham in the top 10 among all pass-catchers in the league, regardless of position, and believed his new four-year, $40 million deal was a bargain.

But that wasn’t the case consistently enough in 2014. And the Saints and Graham both need to figure out how to change that going forward.

METAIRIE, La. -- One of the most frustrating examples of the lack of maturity and professionalism that so many New Orleans Saints veterans harped on this season was an inordinate amount of players showing up late to meetings or flights.

Though nobody was singled out individually, several players acknowledged Monday that there was an increase in fines for such things. At some point, coach Sean Payton even showed the team a chart illustrating that clubs with less team fines will often have more success.

"Look, all of those things become more heightened with losses," Payton said. "That wasn't unnecessarily higher than the norm. But there's an element to what has brought us success here. Success for a long period of time. And all of a sudden, when you have a season like this, you gotta look closely at, hey, let's make sure the little things are being taken care of. It's one of the topics we talked about in the team meeting."

Payton
Payton
Players insisted such indiscretions didn't reach the level of some of the issues being reported with young players being punished in Cleveland this past week. And players insisted that there were never any major concerns with a "poisonous" atmosphere in the locker room. In fact, offensive tackle Zach Strief said, "Considering the difficulty of the season, I thought the locker room stayed together really well."

But Strief said issues like that became very frustrating to him as a veteran leader who needs to police such things.

"I think the biggest problem is it wasn't taught that those things are not OK. It was assumed that you would know that," Strief said. "The perception sometimes from a young guy could be, 'Well, maybe being five minutes late didn't lose that game' -- which is true. But a bunch of guys with the mentality that the rules don't apply to them can lose that game. So that's why you talk about the 'little things.'"

"It's been higher this year than my first two years here. We had so many people late this year, guys late for planes. It's been so many issues with just basic stuff like showing up on time," said cornerback Corey White, who said he had never been fined himself. "Little things like that, I would hate to say that's the reason why we haven't had success on the field. But things like that you can control, you don't want to give 'em a reason to point to something out like that."

Payton and players have been equally frustrated with letting the "little things" slide on the field. Payton mentioned jumping offside on fourth-and-2 or losing the turnover battle in too many hard-fought games.

A few weeks ago, Payton's message to players was that they've become "that team" that they used to plan against, knowing they'd eventually beat themselves.

Safety Kenny Vaccaro said that message also applied to the off-field issues.

"Coach Payton, we pride ourselves on being an organization that's not that organization," said Vaccaro, who also said it wasn't a personal issue for him. "You heard him say a couple weeks ago that we're 'that team' that's making those mistakes. Well, 'that team' he's talking about is doing things like [arriving] late to meetings, late to the planes, having rookies do this, rookies do that.

"You just don't hear about that with the Patriots, you don't hear about that junk with the Packers. And we're part of that group of a team that's built that culture. So we've just gotta get that out.

"Honestly, looking back on the season, those things, I don't think they determine the outcome of games. But at the same time, those little things are just stuff we didn't do last year. Last year, we didn't have any of that in this locker room. So you're gonna look to things like that when a season goes this poorly."

Though no specific instances were revealed, we do know of at least three player discipline issues that came up this season. Rookie linebacker Khairi Fortt was released by the team, reportedly because of missing or being late to meetings. Receiver Joe Morgan was suspended for two games for an unspecified team issue. And defensive tackle John Jenkins was left behind on a road trip for a game for an unspecified reason early in the year.

The good news, according to Strief, is that this should be "fixable stuff."

And as veteran linebacker Curtis Lofton said, a season like this will help drive home the point.

"One thing about football, what it does, it humbles you. So I think a lot of guys were humbled this year," Lofton said. "You've gotta do the things that put you in the position that got you here."

"Stay humble, stay hungry," White added. "That's the attitude we've gotta have next year."
METAIRIE, La. -- No one statistic has bothered Sean Payton more this year than the New Orleans Saints' turnover ratio.

It was one of the first things Payton brought up during his opening statement when he met the media Monday -- a day in which he admitted it was "tough” to come back to work. The Saints lost the turnover battle 4-0 in their 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. And they're tied for 30th in the NFL this year at minus-11.

"I thought we played with real good energy and effort (against Atlanta). I thought emotion and all of those things were on point. And yet I think one of the things that hurt us all season, and it manifested itself yesterday, was that turnover takeaway-giveaway margin,” Payton said. "Those numbers for the year are real poor. You really just keep yourself from having an opportunity to win a game. That's something I obviously have to look closely at. … It's still the No. 1 statistic with regards to winning and losing.”

And it's why the fact that the Saints now have the NFL's No. 1-ranked offense in total yards this season is a relatively-meaningless statistic.

Here's where the Saints (6-9) and their Week 17 opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-13) rank in key statistical categories:

SAINTS OFFENSE:
Total yards: 1st (416.3 per game)
Passing yards: 3rd (299.7 per game)
Rushing yards: 12th (116.5 per game)
Third-down conversions: tie-1st (48.1 percent)
Red-zone touchdowns: 9th (59.7 percent)
Turnovers (giveaways): tie-5th most (27)
Sacks allowed: tie-10th fewest (28)

SAINTS DEFENSE:
Total yards: 31st (390.9 per game)
Passing yards: 29th (261.5 per game)
Rushing yards: 29th (129.5 per game)
Third-down conversions: 30th (45.5 percent)
Red-zone touchdowns: 27th (62.5 percent)
Turnovers (takeaways): tie-28th (16)
Sacks: 25th (31)

SAINTS TEAM:
Points scored: tie-9th (25.2 per game)
Points allowed: 29th (26.9 per game)
Turnover ratio: tie-30th (minus-11)
Time of possession: 15th (30:14 per game)

SAINTS INDIVIDUALS:
QB Drew Brees: 311 yards per game (1st), 32 TDs (tie-5th), 14 INTs (7th most), 69.6 completion percentage (2nd), 99.2 passer rating (5th), 72.2 Total QBR (7th)
RB Mark Ingram: 907 rushing yards (14th), 8 rushing TDs (tie-7th)
TE Jimmy Graham: 79 receptions (tie-18th), 10 receiving TDs (tie-10th)
LB Curtis Lofton: 135 tackles (5th)
OLB Junior Galette: 9.0 sacks (tie-19th), 3 forced fumbles (tie-7th)

BUCCANEERS OFFENSE:
Total yards: 31st (292.8 per game)
Passing yards: tie-22nd (213.3 per game)
Rushing yards: 31st (79.5 per game)
Turnovers (giveaways): 2nd most (32)
Sacks allowed: 4th most (49)

BUCCANEERS DEFENSE:
Total yards: 26th (371.0 per game)
Passing yards: 26th (254.4 per game)
Rushing yards: 20th (116.6 per game)
Turnovers (takeaways): 20th (22)
Sacks: tie-19th (34)

BUCCANEERS TEAM:
Points scored: 28th (17.1 per game)
Points allowed: 26th (25.8 per game)

BUCCANEERS INDIVIDUALS:
QB Josh McCown: 209 yards per game (27th), 10 TDs (tie-30th), 13 INTs (tie-8th most), 55.9 completion percentage (30th), 70.5 passer rating (32nd), 33.8 Total QBR (29th)
WR Mike Evans: 997 receiving yards (18th), 11 receiving TDs (tie-7th)
LB Lavonte David: 141 tackles (2nd), 3 forced fumbles (tie-7th)
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton insisted the New Orleans Saints will treat Sunday's season finale at Tampa Bay like any other game, even though they've been eliminated from playoff contention.

The Saints (6-9) will play their starters -- and they'll play to win.

"Listen, the guys will have the right mentality," Payton said after acknowledging it was a "tough day" to come back in to work Monday after a 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons sealed their fate. "It's important to finish strong. It's an important game for us to play. Obviously, it doesn't have the relevance that we had hoped for. But that being said, it's important for every player, every coach. ...

"It was part of the message this morning. This is a game we're playing as if it were the most important game of the year. And you know what, it's the next one. It's the one we have to play. So we'll get ready."

Payton also said he won't use this week to audition younger players.

The Buccaneers (2-13) will likely take the same approach, even though they would actually be risking the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft with a victory.

NFL teams have never overtly "tanked" for better draft picks like some teams do in other sports. When asked why that is, Payton responded firmly.

"Listen, obviously each sport or each sport's teams are different. We would never do that," Payton said. "We'll have our best guys out there and preparing and doing everything we would normally do if we were playing for a playoff spot. It won't be a bit different."

One of the differences between the NFL and other sports, Payton said, is that they have just 16 games for players to put their "resume" on film -- which adds to some of the pride and competitive nature that motivates them.

"So everything goes in to putting your best stuff on tape," Payton said. "And when you're out there executing, functioning -- you're doing it for the New Orleans Saints, you're doing it for your teammates, you're doing it for your own record or history in regards to how you're playing when other teams grade you."

Various players made similar comments.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't [difficult]," Saints linebacker Parys Haralson said. "But it's something you have to do. You can't just sit around and feel sorry for yourself all day. The season didn't go the way you wanted to but you've got this last game right here to go and still get to do what you love to do. ...

"Go out and play for your pride, play for each other, play for this organization because you get paid to play 16 games."

Payton realized this is the first time he's missed the playoffs since 2008 since he was suspended during the 2012 season.

He said "shock" isn't the right word, but it's definitely disappointment.

"It drives you," Payton said. "There's nothing like winning and that feeling of being successful and having a chance to get in the tournament and play for something. When there's that finality of not accomplishing that there's disappointment, there's all those emotions."
METAIRIE, La. -- The first big decision facing the New Orleans Saints when their offseason begins next week is whether to make any coaching-staff changes -- most importantly, whether to stick with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

As they have all season, Saints players continued to offer strong support for Ryan in the locker room Monday. Safety Kenny Vaccaro didn't even just say he wants Ryan to be back; he insisted he will be.

[+] EnlargeRob Ryan
Bill Haber/AP PhotoDespite the Saints' defense falling near the bottom of the league in several key categories, players are supportive of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
"Rob will be here," Vaccaro said twice in response to questions about Ryan. "Rob's my guy. I love Rob. I'll fight for Rob every game. I'm a Rob guy, so there's no point even asking me about Rob. He'll ride with me until the end. Year 17, he'll come get me off my couch and say, 'Come play with me.'"

Cornerback Keenan Lewis agreed.

"I want him back. I'm gonna ride with him, no matter what the situation is. A great coordinator," Lewis said. "You can't just blame him when things go wrong. I don't think none of the blame should go to the coaches at all. We're the ones out there playing. We've gotta find a way to get it stopped.

"You know, I've played for two good coordinators. I was fortunate playing for Coach LeBeau [Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh], and I had an opportunity to play for Coach Rob, and I definitely feel as though he should be back."

When asked if players feel the need to convey their support for Ryan to the decision-makers, defensive end Tyrunn Walker said, "I think they know what they got. I think they know that he's a great coach and a great mentor."

Other veterans such as Curtis Lofton, Junior Galette, Parys Haralson and David Hawthorne, who have played with multiple defensive coordinators, have also passionately sung Ryan's praises in recent weeks.

So did head coach Sean Payton a few weeks ago when reports surfaced about an alleged rift in their relationship -- going above and beyond in crediting Ryan's passion and work ethic and even offering the ultimate compliment that he could've worked for Payton's mentor, Bill Parcells.

But the ultimate question is whether Payton can accept the lack of production he saw on the field from the Saints' defense. They're ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed (390.9 per game). They're tied for 28th in takeaways (16). And the Saints are by far the worst-ranked defense according to ESPN Stats & Information's defensive efficiency formula, accounting for negative-8.6 expected points added per game. That's worse than 2012, when the Saints were negative-7.0. And Payton fired coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after one year.

There were a few big differences that season, though. For one, Spagnuolo never actually worked for Payton, since Payton was serving a season-long suspension. But the bigger difference is Spagnuolo didn't have nearly the kind of "buy-in" from players in his system that Ryan has.

Plus, Ryan did get results from many of these same players in 2013 before this year's collapse.

A lot of the Saints' offseason decisions will depend heavily on how much they believe in the potential of 2013 vs. the regression of 2014.

Payton, however, wasn't interested in looking at any of those big-picture decisions on Monday with one week still remaining in the regular season and a game coming Sunday at Tampa Bay.

"We'll have a chance to look over every element, as far as from playing to coaching to who's in the building [next week]," Payton said. "All of those things, like we would every year."
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton didn't have many complaints about the way the officials handled the Jimmy Graham fumble call during the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Although Payton said Sunday that he thought it "looked pretty clear" on the JumboTron that the ball crossed the plane of the end zone before Graham fumbled, Payton credited the officials for their explanation to him on the field.

"Listen, No. 1, in fairness to the officials yesterday, I really got a fair -- although I didn't want to hear it -- a solid answer from [referee John] Parry," said Payton, who added that "it's a crew that we think is one of the better crews year in and year out."

"The challenge is it's that 'conclusive' [standard]. And depending on which team or which fan base you're a part of, [you could make an argument]. Had it been called a touchdown, I'm quite certain it would've remained a touchdown," Payton said. "And he said they spent a ton of time -- and not only are they spending time, they're spending time [communicating] with New York and looking at it. It's hard to really argue that, because it kind of is what it is. Obviously it was a significant play in the game. And yet, it wasn't just the deciding factor."

Payton said he appreciates the way the NFL has increased efforts to get replay calls right in recent years -- including that communication with the officiating headquarters in New York and the automatic reviews of all scoring plays and turnovers.

Payton said he expects that to continue in the coming years with the increase in available technology.

"We're really a year or two away before there's a chip in the ball and the plane [of the end zone] being marked," Payton said. "Shoot, we do it with our dogs right now."
NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and his players talked about wanting to “finish the season the right way” next week at Tampa Bay.

And perhaps pride will inspire them a bit as they get one last chance to release the frustrations of this crushing 6-9 season.

But the more important motivator will be what offensive tackle Zach Strief talked about Sunday: auditioning for the future.

[+] EnlargeBen Grubbs
AP Photo/Bill HaberThe woes of the offensive line contributed to the Saints' falling out of the playoff race on Sunday.
This is the kind of season that demands change in the offseason. Payton talked a couple of weeks ago about the importance of finding out “who your guys are.” And he again stressed after Sunday’s 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that when the Saints review this season, they’ll take a close look at what they’re doing -- and who they’re asking to do it.

“When you’re 6-9, everybody’s job is on the line. That’s the reality of the business,” Strief said. “People are not going to be here, especially here, where there’s an expectation of winning. There’s going to be changes made, and you know that leaving the season, so there’s a lot to play for.”

Who, exactly, is on the hot seat is tougher to predict than ever heading into this offseason.

On one hand, the Saints veered so far off the track this year that all options should be on the table.

On the other hand, this team was built to win now with quarterback Drew Brees turning 36 next month. The Saints have invested heavily in several core players still in their primes (a lot of which I agreed with when I broke down their 2014 offseason moves last week). And there were a lot of folks suggesting New Orleans had the most talented roster in franchise history heading into this season.

So not only do the Saints need to decide whether a major overhaul is realistic with their salary-cap constraints, but they first need to decide whether it’s even necessary.

The first big decision will be the fate of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints’ defense was awful for much of this season. But Payton strongly defended Ryan’s passion and work ethic a few weeks ago. And the defense showed signs of life over these past two weeks.

What the Saints do with Ryan might be the best indicator of whether they believe more in the potential this defense showed in 2013 or the implosion we saw in 2014.

It’s even harder to believe that Payton will pin the blame for this year’s failings on the longtime assistant coaches whom he’s trusted through thick and thin (Joe Vitt, Pete Carmichael, Greg McMahon, et al). The Saints’ kick-return game was stagnant this year, but that was the only area that provided a spark during Sunday’s loss to the Falcons, thanks to a 99-yard return on the opening kickoff.

As for players, I’ve already written about some of the escalating salaries that jump off the page (Marques Colston $7 million in salary and bonuses in 2015, Brodrick Bunkley and David Hawthorne $4.5 million each, Jahri Evans $7.5 million, Ben Grubbs $6.6 million).

The offensive line has to be first on the priority list because we’ve seen regression there from older, expensive players like guards Evans and Grubbs -- but we haven’t seen a backup plan develop yet.

The Saints also have several decisions to make at a cornerback position that was a revolving door all year outside of top guy Keenan Lewis. They also need to get younger at receiver and linebacker -- not to mention deciding how much to invest on a possible successor for Brees in the draft.

The 2015 offseason might be the toughest one we’ve seen yet in the Payton-Brees era.

At least they’re getting a head start.
NEW ORLEANS -- The biggest moment of the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons came when tight end Jimmy Graham lost a fumble at the goal line early in the fourth quarter that appeared to be a touchdown on the replay.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Graham
AP Photo/Rogelio SolisFalcons strong safety Kemal Ishmael (left) strips the football from Saints tight end Jimmy Graham after a reception near the goal line in the second half.
The ball appeared to cross the plane before it was stripped away by Falcons safety Kemal Ishmael. But referee John Parry told a pool reporter from The Times-Picayune that he didn't see "clear and indisputable" evidence to overturn the original call.

"If we would've ruled score, it probably would have stayed as a score," Parry told the pool reporter.

Coach Sean Payton and players said it appeared to them Graham scored from watching the replay on the jumbotron. Payton said it "looked pretty clear, and yet it is what it is" and it's something the Saints can't control.

"They [the officials] go back to New York with that, and it's disappointing," Payton said.

Quarterback Drew Brees said it was a huge play in the game because it took seven points off the board when the Saints could have closed within six points early in the third quarter. But he and other players said you have to be able to overcome it -- and pointed out that they managed to make a defensive stop and follow up with a score to close within 20-14 regardless.

The Saints' bigger problems occurred earlier in the game, when they scored only seven points through three quarters, and later in the game, when Brees threw a costly interception with less than three minutes remaining.

Graham was not available for comment after the game. He especially had a rough game through three-plus quarters. He caught only one pass for three yards through three quarters despite being targeted five times. Then he fumbled on that potential touchdown -- whether the fumble occurred before or after he crossed the goal line. Graham did rally with four more catches for 38 yards and a touchdown after that. But it was too little, too late.

W2W4: Saints must win back home crowd

December, 20, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. – Both the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) control their playoff destinies heading into Sunday’s game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The Saints could clinch the NFC South title Sunday if they win and the Carolina Panthers (5-8-1) lose to the Cleveland Browns. However, if the Saints lose and the Panthers win, the Saints will be mathematically eliminated.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on the latest installment of the Saints’ oldest and most heated rivalry. Here’s What 2 Watch 4:

Win back the crowd: Far and away, the biggest stunner of New Orleans’ 2014 season has been the current four-game home losing streak. Before that, the Saints had won 20 straight home games with Sean Payton as coach, including the playoffs. The Superdome had earned a reputation as one of the last places opponents wanted to set foot inside.

Instead, some of the Saints’ recent performances have been downright hideous (namely their 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago). And the home fans have turned downright hostile.

Check out this picture by The Times-Picayune. Everything about it is as unfamiliar as it is unsettling.

That’s the No. 1 thing that has to change Sunday – and potentially in a home playoff game. The Saints need to turn their home-field advantage back into an actual advantage instead of sucking the life out of the place with early miscues.

That means early turnovers by quarterback Drew Brees and others, as we’ve seen in recent home losses, are unforgivable. And the defense can’t get lit up by big plays early.

The Falcons need to be the ones feeling overwhelmed and uncomfortable instead of the Saints feeling pressure to perform inside their own building.

“I think you understand how to utilize the home crowd,” Brees said. “Early success, starting fast -- all those things keep the crowd involved, keep 'em loud. Big plays, momentum-changing plays. So you understand when you’re down and you’re not doing those things, you’re kinda taking that out of it, that benefit, that edge. So, man, we’ve gotta get that back.”

It’s kind of a chicken-vs.-the-egg thing to suggest whether the home fans need to pick up the team or vice versa. Regardless, it’s clear that neither has been happening lately.

Offensive tackle Zach Strief insisted that players don’t let the boos affect their performance – but he said they’re well aware that it’s happening. And that it’s deserved.

“I think we’re going to have a great environment. That’s what’s special about playing at home,” Payton said. “Absolutely, we’re going to need every person in there to be as loud as can be, and we’re going to need to play well. Our fan base is real smart. They understand that. I think it goes hand in hand.”

Jones
Defending Falcons’ receivers: A huge X-factor in this game is whether or not Falcons receiver Julio Jones will play. Before he injured his hip two weeks ago, he was on a tear with 21 catches for 448 yards – in just a two-week span!

Payton said it obviously makes a difference whether or not Jones plays. But both Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan insisted it didn’t alter their preparation. And they’re both well aware of how deep Atlanta’s receivers group is with Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester.

The Saints were torched by Atlanta’s passing game in a 37-34 overtime loss in Week 1, with QB Matt Ryan throwing for a franchise-record 448 yards. The Saints did a decent job of preventing Jones from burning them over the top. Instead, they were ripped apart underneath by all four receivers and a couple running backs – thanks in part to a lot of missed tackles.

Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis (whom I would love to see in a one-on-one matchup with a healthy Jones) said the Saints were surprised by how the Falcons used Hester. Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said he and fellow safety Jairus Byrd played too deep and that the Saints need to use more of an attacking approach.

Ryan bluntly said, “I don’t think we played very well on defense, I don’t think we coached very well on defense, and the simple fact is they beat us and they did what they wanted to. … They obviously executed a hell of a lot better than we did.”

Exploiting Falcons’ pass D: Brees needs to torment the Falcons’ pass defense in a similar fashion. Not only do the Falcons rank dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed (292.5 per game), but they also rank dead last in sacks (16).

Payton and the Saints' players said Atlanta’s run defense has improved in recent weeks. That’s all the more reason why the Saints’ season will come down to Brees being able to exploit the Falcons' biggest weakness. Brees needs to be the guy who’s on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and 35 TDs, with a league-best 70.0 completion percentage – and not the guy who’s stumbled too many times with 12 interceptions and two lost fumbles.

Know the enemy: Saints on Matt Ryan

December, 19, 2014
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METAIRIE, La. – Lost in the ridicule of the NFC South division this year is the fact that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is having one of the best seasons of his career.

New Orleans Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton, who teamed with Ryan in Atlanta for four years after they both entered the NFL in 2008, said, “I think he’s playing better than I’ve seen him play ever.”

Ryan
Ryan
Ryan could potentially surpass his career highs of 4,719 yards and 32 touchdown passes. And he has certainly been on a tear lately, averaging 349 passing yards over the past three games with a total of eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Ryan also set a franchise record with 448 yards and three touchdowns against the Saints in Week 1.

Dating back to 2010, Ryan has thrown 15 touchdowns against the Saints with only three picks (though his career record against New Orleans is 4-8).

Here’s what the Saints had to say about Ryan this week:

LB Curtis Lofton: “The thing about Matt, I’m gonna put him in, he’s one of the elite quarterbacks in this league. You just can’t line up and expect to have success. You have to disguise your blitzes and disguise your coverages, and you’ve gotta get pressure on him and make him uncomfortable. Because if he’s sitting back there and has plenty of time, he’s definitely gonna dissect you. … He throws it quick. And his scrambling ability has really increased this year, I think moreso than he has in the past.”

S Kenny Vaccaro: “I’m watching tape of this cat, and these last two months, man, he’s been unbelievable. He’s been accurate. His look-off I think is one of the best in the league as far as going through his progression. We were just talking about that earlier, I think he’s playing some good ball.”

QB Drew Brees: “I think he’s got great command of the offense. I think he’s extremely intelligent. I think he’s tough. He can make all the throws. I don’t really see him getting rattled. I think he’s a really calm, composed guy who loves to compete.”

Coach Sean Payton: “He’s got good feet, great awareness, arm strength, he’s accurate. I think he’s a guy that doesn’t just sit and hold the ball in the pocket. I think he knows when the play’s over -- you’ll see him throw it away. And yet he can flush, and he has, to his right and to his left and make plays with his feet throwing the ball or keeping it. So he does a lot of the things you look for. That’s why you’re looking at the numbers he’s put up and the season he’s having, it’s been pretty good.”

Payton on Ryan’s tendency to get rid of the ball quickly: “He throws with real good rhythm and anticipation. They do a great job with their spacing in regards to their route trees. And I think that group in front, these last six or seven weeks, has really gelled and [is] playing a lot better. So obviously I think it’s important that the looks are different and you’re able to maybe eliminate some of that timing. But he’s got real good awareness as to what you’re doing coverage-wise, man or zone, where he wants to go with the football. And so that clock operates very efficiently with him.”

Vaccaro on whether Ryan’s quick throws are essentially ‘jump balls’ he thinks his receivers can win: “Not necessarily. I think he’s a good pre-snap reader. He knows where to go with the ball based on the coverage he’s getting. He has a quick release. And he just anticipates what the defense is doing. … I don’t think he forces throws, I think he just knows where to go with it.”

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