I don’t think Sean Payton is going anywhere.
That said, whoever coaches the New Orleans Saints in 2017 should resume the team’s annual tweaking of a defensive unit that remains little more than a pesky speed bump for opponents on the NFL regular-season highway.
Yes, the defense made modest strides under coordinator Dennis Allen this season, yielding 38.0 fewer yards and 1.4 fewer points per game compared to 2015, improving from 31st league-wide a year ago to 27th this season. But 375.4 yards and 28.4 points per game are nothing to brag about.
The best examples of the progress, perhaps, come in the number of touchdown passes allowed and the overall passer rating by opposing quarterbacks. In 2015, the Saints were historically bad in both categories, surrendering an NFL-record 45 TD passes and a rating of 116.1. This season, those numbers decreased to 27 and 98.1, respectively.
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But let’s not get carried away.
The Saints defense continues to be an albatross for Payton. Look no farther than bookend losses this season to the newly crowned NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons, who earned their second sweep of New Orleans in three years with a 38-32 victory Sunday at the soon-to-be demolished Georgia Dome.
In Game 1, played on “Monday Night Football” in Week 3 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Falcons won going away 45-32.
In each game, the Saints defense seemed ill-equipped to contain Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and his posse of playmakers. The Falcons scored touchdowns on all five first-half possessions Sunday, driving 68, 75, 75, 76 and 75 yards to lead 35-13 at halftime.
They extended their lead to 38-13 after booting a chip-shot field goal to cap a 95-yard drive in the third quarter, then withstood a 19-point flurry by the Saints in the fourth quarter to lock down the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye.
At one point Sunday during the first-half onslaught, TV cameras zoomed in on Allen, who looked shell-shocked.
The bottom line for 7-9 Sean or his successor this offseason is building a defense that can hold up against the Falcons’ prolific offense. The Saints no longer can rely solely on outscoring opponents with future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees under center.
That philosophy/strategy is outdated.
Ryan feasted on the Saints defense this season, just as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has in the past. In two games against New Orleans, Ryan completed 47 of 66 passes for 548 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions for a gaudy 126.3 passer rating.
The Falcons amassed 907 yards from scrimmage on 122 plays, averaging 7.5 yards per snap in the two games.
Their dynamic running back tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman was unstoppable, combining for 527 yards from scrimmage on 62 touches (46 runs, 16 receptions) and scoring six touchdowns.
For this to be a Happy New Year in Who Dat Nation, the Saints football operations will need to upgrade their defense against the pass at all levels to win the NFC South.
Finishing 7-9 for the third consecutive year and fourth in the last five doesn’t cut it. Even in 2012, when Payton had to serve a season-long suspension for his role in Bounty Gate, the team went 7-9 under interim coaches Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt.
Going 2-4 inside the NFC South this season doesn’t cut it.
Another squandered season with Brees (he turns 38 on Jan. 15) under center doesn’t cut it, either.
So I ask: Where is Sean Payton going?
Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.