Brian Allee-Walsh

Unless you’re Pete Carmichael, Payton loyalty program no longer works

Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh
Saints columnist Brian Allee-Walsh Biloxi

The odds of winning the Powerball lottery are a staggering 1 in 175 million.

And yet I always thought I had a better chance of winning the Powerball before New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton would part ways with three of his most loyal and trusted soldiers — assistant head coach and linebackers coach Joe Vitt, special teams coordinator Greg McMahon and defensive line coach Bill Johnson.

I thought Vitt, McMahon and Johnson were untouchable at least as long as Payton remained in charge.

I was wrong.

I’m still chasing a lucrative dream and Vitt, McMahon and Johnson were given their walking papers Thursday by their commander in chief, along with assistant special teams coach Stan Kwan and defensive assistant/linebackers James Willis.

The dismissals of Vitt, McMahon and Johnson were long overdue, certainly understandable based on the statistical data/analytics, and still I’m shocked by the moves because of Payton’s unwavering support for each man over the years, through the good times and bad, especially the bad.

Vitt and McMahon have been with Payton in New Orleans since the beginning, joining forces in 2006 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Johnson came on board before the Super Bowl XLIV season of 2009.

Their firings came less than a week after the Saints put a wrap on their third consecutive 7-9 season under Payton and the fourth in five years counting the Bountygate-riddled season of 2012. Two other factors to consider: The Saints have missed the playoffs four of the last five years and have not been above the .500 mark at any time since the 2013 season.

Those failures are due in a large part to the sub-standard play on defense and special teams with this season being Exhibit A.

Special teams’ gaffes adversely affected the outcomes of at least three games, specifically in the area of placekicking with undrafted rookie Will Lutz, the 11th different kicker in as many seasons under Payton. The situation bubbled over in the improbable 26-24 loss to Denver in Week 10, prompting the in-season hiring of special teams consultant Kevin O’Dea. O’Dea is the likely replacement for McMahon.

The Saints have ranked last in the NFL in total defense since 2007, setting league records for most yards allowed in one season (7,042 in 2012), most touchdown passes allowed in one season (45 in 2015) and highest passer rating by opposing quarterbacks in one season (116.1 in 2015).

And while Vitt and Johnson are not entirely to blame for the recent defensive decline, few linebackers and down linemen have reached their full potential under their tutelage. When a unit continues to yield points by the bushel and ranks near the bottom of the NFL year in and year out — 28.4 points a game this season, 29.8 in 2015, 26.5 in 2014 and 28.4 in 2012 — something is awry.

Either the players aren’t good enough, the players aren’t doing their jobs or the assistant coaches aren’t doing their jobs.

Or all three.

My guess is all three.

Now here’s the multi-state Powerball question: Whose idea was it to make the sweeping staff changes? Did the impetus come from disenchanted owner Tom Benson? Did general manager Mickey Loomis demand that Payton make staff changes or lose his job? Or did Payton finally see the light and make these changes on his own, knowing you’re only as strong as your weakest link(s)?

I know of head coaches who refused to fire assistants and ultimately lost their jobs or resigned in the process.

Based on these moves, do we now wonder about Loomis’ job security? Will more heads role?

Time will tell.

I will say this: Vitt, Johnson and McMahon were given ample time to prove themselves in New Orleans.

Former Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was not. He was unceremoniously fired after the Bountygate debacle of 2012 and made a scapegoat for an abysmal season.

Only Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael remains from Payton’s original staff and Carmichael serves as an extension of the head coach when it comes to the offense. So Carmichael appears to be safe.

Then again, I thought Vitt, McMahon and Johnson had lifetime passes with Payton.

Guess I need to keep playing Powerball.

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