NFL Nation: 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 adopted 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. -- 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."

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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," Vaccaro said. "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."

Saints at Buccaneers preview

December, 26, 2014
12/26/14
8:00
AM ET
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa TV: Fox

While the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons play for the NFC South championship Sunday, there’s another division game that means absolutely nothing.

The New Orleans Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season finale for both teams. The Saints were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Atlanta last Sunday. The 2-13 Bucs were out of contention long ago.

ESPN Saints writer Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s game.

Yasinskas: Mike, with the playoffs out of the question, how will coach Sean Payton approach this game? Will he play his starters, and how motivated will they be?

Triplett: Payton said the starters will play and that they’ll approach it like any other game that counts. But the motivation is obviously tough to predict. Players have insisted that there are plenty of reasons to play, from their pride and competitive nature to the fact everyone is being evaluated for the future. But this will be a tough week for them since they had realistic playoff hopes up until last Sunday. This game will definitely have an “Outback Bowl” feel to it -- to use terms that Tampa fans can appreciate.

I’ll ask you the same question. I’m guessing 100 percent of Buccaneers fans would love to see them “tank” for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But it seems like NFL teams have never embraced that approach.

Yasinskas: Yes, Tampa Bay fans are rooting for the first overall pick, even if it comes at the expense of the Bucs' win-loss record. But coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win. I wouldn’t expect anything else. Teams don’t tank in the NFL, and the Bucs aren’t about to break the trend. We’re talking about professional athletes with a lot of pride, so they’re going to play hard. Besides, the Bucs have some incentive in this one. They’re trying to avoid going winless at home. The only other time the Bucs didn’t win a home game was 1976, their expansion season.

Back in the preseason, I viewed the Saints as a playoff team and maybe even a Super Bowl contender. They have a ton of talent. But, obviously, things haven’t gone well. What’s been the biggest problem for the Saints this year?

Triplett: Do we have a word limit? The problems have obviously been widespread to reach this point. The biggest was their defensive collapse. They went from fourth in yards allowed last year to 31st this year. They blew coverage assignments, missed tackles, didn’t force enough turnovers, didn’t get enough pressure. It’s stunning because they had most of the same core players as last year, plus they added safety Jairus Byrd (who struggled before suffering a season-ending knee injury).

In general, I’d chalk it up to a “sophomore slump.” They were counting on a lot of young guys, and I think a lot of them expected to just naturally take that next step. Either they weren’t as motivated or offenses had a better plan for them, etc. I still think it can be salvaged, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, the offense also underachieved on a smaller scale with Drew Brees forcing way too many passes that turned into crucial interceptions in big moments and Jimmy Graham not making as big of an impact as he should have on a consistent basis.

Again, I’ll throw the same idea back at you. I predicted the Buccaneers to finish second in the NFC South because I think they have so much talent on defense, and I thought the veteran coach and QB would stabilize them. Is there still hope this team can contend in the division as early as next year?

Yasinskas: I predicted the Bucs would go 8-8 and thought they might even be able to get a win or two more. I thought the arrival of Lovie Smith, combined with some good defensive talent already in place, would be enough to fuel a quick turnaround.

Obviously, I was very wrong. Like you, I could write a book about everything that has gone wrong for the Bucs. But we don’t have room for a book, so I’ll try to sum it up quickly. Things got off to a rocky start in the preseason when offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford had a heart procedure. He took a leave of absence and eventually left the team. I don’t think the offense ever recovered from that. Tedford was supposed to install an up-tempo, innovative offense. We never saw that and the offense never got into any sort of rhythm.

Despite Smith’s reputation as a defensive guru, the defense struggled early in the season. It took some time to learn the Tampa 2 scheme. The defense did improve pretty dramatically in the second half of the season, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of offense.

I do think the Bucs can turn things around next season. But they’ve got to find a good offensive coordinator and they have to be a lot better on offense.

You mentioned Brees forcing a lot of throws. That’s what I think I’ve seen from a distance. But I’ve had personnel people around the league tell me that Brees is on the downside of his career. What’s your take on his season?

Triplett: I honestly don’t think we’ve seen major signs of regression, Pat. I think he has at least two or three more high-level years in him. But it has been a really weird season for Brees. He leads the NFL in passing yards (4,671) and ranks second in completion percentage (69.6, which ranks seventh in NFL history). But those interceptions have been really bad -- especially considering some of the situations. This last one against Atlanta with a chance to win the game in the final minutes was one of a few real stunners this year.

Those interceptions have always been a part of Brees’ game, though -- especially in years when the defense has been bad and he feels like he needs to do it all himself. This season has been an exact replica of 2012 in that sense.

The other thing that’s disappearing is the downfield passing game. Brees’ arm strength doesn’t seem much different than past years, and his completion percentage on deep throws is still among the league’s best. But he’s not taking as many shots down the field, constantly settling for checkdown throws. I’m not sure if that’s because of defenses changing or his receivers getting older or because he has lost some of that deep-ball accuracy. I’m sure it’s a combination of all three -- but that’s probably not an area that will improve as he gets older.

What’s the Bucs’ future at quarterback? Could next year’s starter be gearing up for the College Football Playoff right now?

Yasinskas: It’s very possible that Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston could end up with the Bucs next season. The Bucs have been dismal on offense and they need to make major changes. Why not start with the quarterback position? Josh McCown is 35 and he probably is best suited to be a backup. Second-year pro Mike Glennon got a five-game look when McCown was hurt earlier this year. But it doesn’t appear that Glennon won over the coaching staff. With a high draft pick, it’s time for the Bucs to find their quarterback for the long term.

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."
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.
METAIRIE, La. -- The revamped New Orleans Saints secondary did a decent job in the dress rehearsal.

But now comes the real thing.

The Saints will face much stiffer competition Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons than they did in this past Monday night's 31-15 victory over the hapless Chicago Bears.

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFalcons QB Matt Ryan (2) shredded the Saints' D for 448 yards in Week 1.
Atlanta has the NFL's fifth-ranked passing offense, and quarterback Matt Ryan previously carved up the Saints for a Falcons-franchise-record 448 yards in Atlanta's 37-34 overtime victory in Week 1.

The Saints and their 31st-ranked defense have been trying to fix the problem ever since.

"They're probably the best receiving corps in the league. I'm not gonna say probably -- they are," said Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, who said he's preparing as though Atlanta will be at full strength despite receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas all missing practice Wednesday.

"So we definitely gotta get it together," Lewis continued. "They definitely embarrassed us the first week. And when you've got pride, you know you just can't come out there and let that happen again."

Jones' hip injury is the ultimate X factor this week. He didn't play last week and remains questionable. But Lewis said he expects Jones to play because the Falcons' season is on the line in this showdown that could wind up determining the NFC South champion.

Jones ranks second in the NFL with 1,428 receiving yards this year.

In that first game, the Saints' approach to covering Jones worked OK. They primarily put their best corner, Lewis, on White while mostly double-teaming Jones with corner Patrick Robinson and free safety Jairus Byrd. Jones caught seven passes for 116 yards, but most of it was underneath stuff, and he didn't score a touchdown.

The Saints used a similar approach that worked great three weeks ago against dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

The problem in Week 1, however, was that New Orleans got carved up by Atlanta's depth -- including a huge game from fourth receiver Devin Hester, strong performances by White and Douglas and two big touchdown plays by backup running backs Antone Smith and Jacquizz Rodgers.

Lewis admitted that Hester's usage (five catches, 99 yards) came as a "shock."

"In Chicago they really didn't use him like that," Lewis said of Hester's former team. "But he came out and he definitely exploited us last time. I'm pretty sure probably none of the guys expected it. The whole week they were saying how they were gonna use him as a returner and not as a receiver. But he showed that he's elite in this league and we've gotta keep aware of him."

The Falcons feature a lot of three-receiver sets (sometimes four) that will stretch New Orleans' new-look secondary to the limit.

Young cornerback Terrence Frederick and veteran strong safety Jamarca Sanford were new additions to the starting lineup this past Monday. And undrafted rookie Pierre Warren made just his fourth start since being re-signed off of the Minnesota Vikings' practice squad. Meanwhile, safety Kenny Vaccaro was demoted back into the nickel role in which he had thrived as a rookie last year. Robinson was bumped to dime back, and former starter Corey White was inactive.

The switches worked for the most part, with the Saints intercepting a season-high three passes (two by Warren, one by Robinson) and taking a 21-0 lead before some late breakdowns made the game temporarily uncomfortable.

"I thought overall, like anything else, you watch it, and you play well, and yet you put the tape on and there are things you can look at," coach Sean Payton said. "I didn't like particularly how we finished. Our red zone defense needs work. But I thought there were some positives you take away from the game.

"This'll be an entirely different type of game and an entirely different type of team we're playing. So we'll be smart about our personnel packages and how we want to use them."

Payton wouldn't specify whether he plans to stick with the same lineup. But he said the plan won't be altered much by the Falcons' injury report -- especially because the Saints have so much respect for Atlanta's depth at receiver.

"Their depth at that position is pretty impressive," Payton said. "Obviously the way Julio's been playing, it's important to know where he's at on the field. But I'm sure they'll be capable if he's not able to, so we have to prepare like he's playing."

Ryan also has traditionally frustrated the Saints' pass rush by getting rid of the ball quickly. A repeat of New Orleans' seven-sack performance against the Bears seems extremely unlikely.

"They're an explosive team offensively -- and not just in the passing game," Payton said. "Their numbers in the last six weeks with regards to big plays … they're a team that starts fast, they've got great tempo, obviously a veteran quarterback that gets them in to some advantage looks. It's not just a challenge for the secondary, it's a challenge for the whole defense. It's a challenge for our guys up front and understanding the splits, understanding what we're trying to do within each snap."
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton said he doesn't think opponents can really glean anything valuable from seeing the zoomed-in look of his play-calling sheet during ESPN's "Monday Night Football" broadcast. But the New Orleans Saints coach clearly wasn't a fan of the network's decision to do so.

Payton
Payton
"Pretty soon they'll be in our bench area helping out with the play calls," cracked Payton, who said the access of cameras and microphones seems to increase every year. "I don't think there's much to it. There's a lot of terminology. But I am kind of surprised it showed up on the TV screen. … I wouldn't put it on if I was ESPN."

When asked if there's anything he could use from an opponents' play sheet, Payton said, "There'd be nothing to really do with it. You look at their terminology. There's nothing that it's really giving you. ... It's 50 different names of plays, they're not numbered in any particular order."

Payton said the bigger concern for all teams around the NFL is how much the quarterback's cadence gets picked up with microphones now on guards or centers for nationally-televised broadcasts.

"That's significant. That topic, we would have a database now. … Shoot Peyton Manning's doing a commercial because of it," Payton said -- referencing Manning's famous "Omaha! Omaha!" call. "That's much more significant than what we're discussing, in regards to get-offs … the tempo of a cadence, how it sounds, when a play's changed. That's different now. That's something we're adjusting with, everyone has to."

Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he thinks every quarterback "kind of has their own spin" on their cadence at the line and does something a little bit different.

"But at the end of the day, you change it up," Brees said. "You don't give ‘em the same thing every time."

CHICAGO -- The New Orleans Saints shocked their season back to life once again Monday with a thorough 31-15 thrashing of a Chicago Bears team that was walking dead.

It was an impressive display of resilience from a team that had hit rock bottom just a week earlier with a 31-point loss at home to the Carolina Panthers.

But we've seen this act before from these Saints (6-8). Now the question is: Will they finally take advantage?

Will they finally build off a performance like this and come back with an even bigger win six days from now at home against the 5-9 Atlanta Falcons?

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast"Learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity," Drew Brees said after passing for 375 yards and three TDs against the Bears.
Somehow, the Saints still control their own destiny in the pitiful NFC South. Now they need to prove they actually deserve it.

"I think we've shown a couple times we can respond from adversity. Let's make sure we can handle success, too," quarterback Drew Brees said after his 375 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions helped the Saints jump to a 21-0 lead before a lukewarm finish.

The last time the Saints took over sole possession of first place in the NFC South, in Week 9, they responded by losing their next three games -- all at home.

Then they had an apparent season-saving win at Pittsburgh in Week 13 -- and followed up with that epic fail against the Panthers.

"Oh, man, learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity," Brees said. "Typically when you lose a game, everybody's coming in and you're real hard on yourself, coaches are on you, that week of practice is amped up a little bit. But the tendency after success is to relax, and it's not time to relax.

"It's time to, man, hit the pedal to the metal and continue to get better."

The atmosphere around Saints camp last week was as intense as it's ever been in the Sean Payton regime, according to longtime running back Pierre Thomas. Veteran players demanded more maturity and professionalism out of the team. A couple of guys were demoted, another got cut and an increased sense of urgency was demanded from everyone.

And they delivered. Especially the defense, which had seemingly established itself as the worst in the NFL a week earlier (at least according to ESPN Stats & Information's efficiency ratings).

Sure, the abysmal Bears offense did everything but take a knee from the opening series. But the Saints pounced on quarterback Jay Cutler like a wounded animal with a season-high seven sacks and a season-high three interceptions.

At times, the performance was a bit sloppy on both sides of the ball. But it was fiery. Payton's opening statement after the game was, "I was pleased with the energy level" -- a complete 180 from the previous week, when he opened with the word "embarrassing."

"We had seven sacks today?" said Saints defensive end Akiem Hicks, who had his best individual play of the season when he sacked both Cutler and the offensive lineman who tried to get in between them. "I don't think anybody was counting. We were just trying to get in there and get some."

To a man, however, the Saints insisted that they can't be satisfied -- a problem that has plagued them too often this season.

Heck, it was probably the Saints' problem to start with, since so many people dumped Super Bowl expectations onto them.

"I'm proud of [the effort]," said Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, who responded Monday night after being the one individual who was called out more publicly than any other. "At the same time, I shouldn't be proud of effort. It should be like that every game."

"We know how good we can be. We also know how bad we can be. That's the thing this year," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had two sacks despite being limited by a knee injury.

"The message is always heard. We have the best coaches in the business," Galette said. "I just know on defense, we have a lot of young guys. It hasn't been as consistent as we usually are. Obviously, we have some growing pains.

"At the end of the day, we're still talented, and I still feel like we have a shot at this thing."

'The better Saints team showed up'

December, 16, 2014
12/16/14
1:40
AM ET
CHICAGO -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 31-15 victory over the Chicago Bears:

Galette
Saints respond: The Saints (6-8) were challenged like never before -- both internally and externally -- after their "embarrassing" 41-10 loss at home to the Carolina Panthers last week. Coach Sean Payton made some roster changes, and he and veteran leaders demanded a sense of urgency. And they got it. Though it wasn't a perfect win, the first words out of Payton's mouth were, "I was pleased with the energy level."

"All year, you hear people saying that you don't know what team is gonna show up. The better Saints team showed up tonight," said outside linebacker Junior Galette, who had two of the Saints' seven sacks. "We were hungrier and more desperate. ... When we play our A-game, we're hard to stop.

"We know how good we can be, but we also know how bad we can be. That's the thing this year."

Vaccaro responds: No individual player was more publicly called out than safety Kenny Vaccaro, whose "demotion" turned out to be a switch back to the nickelback role he thrived in last year. Vaccaro wound up playing an estimated two-thirds of the Saints' defensive snaps -- and he played on all four special teams for the first time in his career. He came up with a huge run stuff when the Bears tried faking a punt.

Payton called Vaccaro's preparation and performance "outstanding." Vaccaro said it was easy for him to switch back to his familiar role, but he's still determined to develop as a true safety going forward. "This will probably be the best year of my career as far as growing mentally," Vaccaro said.

Upping the ante: Now the trick is bringing the same sense of urgency into next week's home date with the Atlanta Falcons (5-9), which could well decide the fate of the NFC South.

"I think we've shown a couple times we can respond from adversity. Let's make sure we can handle success too," quarterback Drew Brees said of a problem that has crept up often with the Saints this year. "Learning how to handle success is as important or more important than handling the adversity."
METAIRIE, La. -- For the second time this week, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton shot down speculation about his coaching future. This time he denied that he would have any interest in the vacant University of Michigan job.

Payton
Payton
There haven't been any actual reports of Payton being a candidate in Michigan, and there are no significant ties between the coach and school. But his name has popped up in some speculation, including articles by GoBlueWolverine.

"Listen, I've got two kids right in Dallas, alright. … I've got no interest in any other job but this one," Payton said. "And I know you guys will preface all that by, ‘Well, he's gotta say that.' It seems like every three years I answer that question, and every three years, sure enough, he's the head coach here. …

"This is the job I'm most interested in, only interested in."

Sure enough, Payton made almost the exact same comments when his name surfaced as a possible candidate for the Michigan job in 2007. There was also speculation he might be interested in leaving the Saints when his contract was voided during the 2012 season. And indeed, he never left.

Earlier this week, Payton also shot down speculation from Sports Illustrated's Peter King that Payton might start to feel "a little wanderlust" after this 5-8 season and consider walking away from the job early instead of too late -- a la Payton's mentor, Bill Parcells.

"Absolutely no way," Payton said at the time. "It's silly. Won't happen."
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton shot down the notion that he would consider walking away after this, his ninth year as head coach of the New Orleans Saints.

Payton
Payton
“Absolutely no way,” Payton said when asked Thursday about speculation that was put out there by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King earlier in the week.

King said in a video for The MMQB that coaches sometimes start to feel “a little wanderlust” when they’ve been in the same place for close to a decade and that Payton’s mentor Bill Parcells would always leave teams too early instead of too late.

“So it wasn’t a report? Peter King offered his 10 things he thinks. It’s silly. Won’t happen,” Payton said.

Payton then added, “You’ve gotta consider the source” -- a likely reference to a relationship with King that soured after King’s coverage of the Saints’ bounty scandal.

It's fair for King to speculate. But even if you buy into his line of thinking, the idea seems awfully premature.

Although the Saints’ season has taken a wicked downturn this year with their 5-8 record and four-game home losing streak, there’s no reason to think Payton would be eager to walk away. He still has three years left on a deal worth around $8 million per year. He has a great deal of influence and control in the power structure with owner Tom Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis. And he’s still got a quarterback in Drew Brees that should give him a chance to win championships for at least a few more years.
METAIRIE, La. -- Bench Kenny Vaccaro? Release Joe Morgan?

Sure. At this stage in the New Orleans Saints' season, every option should be on the table. We're well past the point where an Aaron Rodgers “R-E-L-A-X” speech will get the job done.

But for both Vaccaro's sake and the Saints' sake, his demotion had better wind up being temporary. More like what happened with cornerback Patrick Robinson this season than what happened with left tackle Charles Brown around this same time last year, when the Saints gave up on Brown for good.

[+] EnlargeKenny Vaccaro
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsThe Saints have benched Kenny Vaccaro, who is supposed to be one of the team's building blocks for the future.
Without knowing everything that went into the decision, it's hard to say how much Vaccaro deserves it.

Clearly, the former first-round draft pick wasn't living up to his lofty potential -- which makes him the perfect embodiment of the entire Saints defense this year.

But one thing, Vaccaro is not is an ideal scapegoat.

This isn't the kind of move a team makes purely for effect. Vaccaro is supposed to be one of the building blocks for the Saints' future. And they can't really afford to spare those right now with their salary-cap restraints.

Vaccaro's mistakes have been pretty evident this year. Way too many missed tackles and way too many guys getting past the last line of defense for season-killing touchdowns.

I'm not sure if Vaccaro was responsible on touchdowns by Carolina's Jonathan Stewart and Greg Olsen in the most recent 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers -- but I know coach Sean Payton made a specific reference to that Olsen TD as one that was unacceptable.

And my biggest frustration with watching Vaccaro was that there weren't enough big game-changing plays to make up for the big misses (only four forced turnovers and two sacks in his career).

I'm OK with an all-out, attacking, aggressive style as long as the good outweighs the bad (think: Roman Harper in his prime, when he routinely led the Saints defense in both departments).

Vaccaro still has both the potential and passion to be a great asset in the future. Last year, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan called him the best overall safety in the NFL because of his versatility, and ESPN scouting analyst Matt Williams predicted he'd be an eight-or-10 Pro Bowl type of player.

Another key ingredient with Vaccaro is that he seems to be passionate about being great. He wears his heart on his sleeve, is open about both his desires and his frustrations and talks all the time about how manically he watches film. For a glimpse, check out a sit-down I did with him last month after criticism was reaching its peak.

Also, just last month Payton commended Vaccaro for his effort in a blowout loss and said, “I love the attitude and toughness he brings.”

But things have gotten worse for the Saints (5-8) since then. As Payton said when he first hinted at changes after Sunday's loss, “What's madness is to continue to get up here after a game like that with our fans and say, ‘We're gonna have it right next week.'”

So maybe the benching was deserved for a team that's at wit's end.

Ultimately, though, restoring Vaccaro for the future needs to rank among the Saints' top priorities.
METAIRIE, La. -- Zach Strief said he could feel the lack of energy in the locker room before the New Orleans Saints' 41-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

And that was the one thing above all others that made him both "angry" and "embarrassed" as a captain and veteran leader.

"Because if there's one thing that should be consistent, it's energy and readiness," said Strief, who spent a long time Monday explaining what he and other veteran leaders described after the game as an "unprofessional" performance.

[+] EnlargeZach Strief
Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports"I think a lot of it is the expectation that showing up and playing is enough. It's not," Zach Strief said.
"I think a lot of it is the expectation that showing up and playing is enough. It's not," Strief said of an issue he said has crept up more than once this year. "‘OK, I put my uniform on, I look good, I walk out on the field. And now that we're here and we're the Saints and we have this history where we'll win games, now we're just gonna win this game.' And that's not the reality of this league.

"The teams that created that perception here, it wasn't like that. It wasn't that we expected, or they expected, to show up and they just win. There was that sense of urgency, that emotion, that energy that you have to have."

Strief insisted that doesn't mean he's pointing the finger at younger players -- "I refuse to do that," he said. Strief also specified that he wasn't referencing Junior Galette, who made controversial comments last week about former teammates.

In fact, Strief said he was just as disappointed in himself for recognizing that feeling in the locker room and not figuring out a way to change it.

Strief said different players create that energy level in different ways. He himself is not a yeller and screamer. But he pointed to former Saints fullback Jed Collins as an example of a guy who fires himself up by yelling and jumping around after the national anthem.

"The second you don't go out and have everything that you've got to put on the field, that's exactly what's gonna happen," Strief said of Sunday's drubbing. "I don't think it's intended. I don't think its guys walking in like ‘I don't care.' I don't think that's what it is. I think it's not realizing how up you have to be for every game to be successful."

Strief also insisted that he doesn't have any problem with the way players have practiced and prepared during the work week -- something which coach Sean Payton and other players in the locker room agreed with. They all said they've liked the attitude and approach during practice.

As for the pregame atmosphere Strief described, Payton said that's probably easier for a player to recognize. Though Payton pointed out that the Saints' game at Detroit earlier this year was an example of one where he felt everybody was "ready to play and play hard." (They had their best start of the year in that game before a late collapse).

There were a lot of varying interpretations from Payton and other players on Monday about whether the problem has been a lack of energy, a lack of effort, a lack of execution or some combination of all three.

Payton and safety Kenny Vaccaro both stressed that they didn't see guys loafing on the field. But as Vaccaro put it, "you can be doing your job real fast -- and real wrong."

Payton said one of the disturbing trends he's recognized is, "I don't know how mentally tough we've been when we've gotten hit in the mouth. And when you play in this league, you're going to have to be able to collect yourself, get on to the next play."

Overall, though, nobody who spoke to the media Monday disagreed with the assessment from veteran leaders like Strief, Drew Brees and Benjamin Watson that Sunday's performance was unprofessional.

"Everybdoy's gotta be a pro," defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker said. "I learned that from guys like Drew, (Marques) Colston, Strief, learned it from (Jonathan) Vilma, Will (Smith). It comes with the territory, you gotta learn to be a pro."

"I don't take offense," said Vaccaro, a second-year player. "I prepare hard all week, I watch all the tape, I take all the notes. So that doesn't (offend) me. But we are (struggling) as a group. So it is what it is, (they're) right.

"They laid the foundation, those guys that were here before us. They're the reason why our expectation level is so high, and we've gotta uphold that. And that's the standard that's expected. I wasn't here when they won the whole thing. And that's the standard. So whatever I gotta do to get to that, I'll do it."

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