METAIRIE, La. — When Sean Payton’s suspension from the NFL finally was lifted on Jan. 22, 2013, there was one dark cloud still hanging over his program from the failed 2012 season - New Orleans’ defense was bad.
Like, historically bad, allowing more yards in a single season than any other team in NFL history.
Almost 72 hours after reinstatement, Payton made a bold move, firing coordinator Steve Spagnuolo after his defense failed spectacularly.
Fifteen days later, Payton found the man he was looking for; he hired Rob Ryan on Feb. 9.
And 323 days after that, after the Saints put the 2013 regular season to bed, Payton couldn’t have felt more right.
New Orleans’ defense went from 32nd in the NFL to 4th, helping the team go from 7-9 to 12-6.
“There was turnover and we talked about it last spring as this team moved forward of really writing their own story,” Payton said.
This year’s story included one of the more remarkable improvements in NFL history. Under Ryan’s tutelage and creative ways, the Saints’ improved by 134.4 yards, the largest difference in the league since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
With that, Ryan would seemingly have earned at least an interview for one of the league’s six head coaching openings – Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Tennessee, Minnesota, Tampa Bay. But he hasn’t and with one opening left, Cleveland, it’s unlikely he’ll get that chance this year.
“I think what he has done with our defense is obviously monumental and is obviously big on his resume,” said safety Malcolm Jenkins, an unrestricted free agent this offseason. “He does well with managing people. He’d be a good head coach, but hopefully he stays with the Saints.”
New Orleans’ defense improved in nearly every major category, regressing only in takeaways (26 to 19).
It allowed 5.2 yards per play (10th in the NFL), down from 6.5 (32). Yards per rush dropped to 4.6 (28) from 5.16 (32). Yards per pass fell to 6.1 (7) from 7.77 (32). The Saints had a better third-down percentage – 34.67 (9) – than in 2012, when they gave up 38.46 (18).
And with 49 sacks, 19 more than a season earlier, Ryan’s defense improved in sacks per pass play, going from 4.98 percent (29) to 9.66 percent (4).
Not that those involved were completely surprised.
“I think we knew what we had in this locker room,” inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “We knew the players that we did have and we had to play the way we knew we could play and once we did that, we were going to do something special. Not one of us doubted that we were going to be great this year.”
The change began right away.
Instead of ignoring what happened in 2012, Ryan embraced it early. He listened to what the players had to say and worked towards their strengths.
“I remember when Rob first got there, our first meeting with him, we put that on the table that we were the worst in league history and how nobody thinks we can do it and everybody is kind of doubting us,” Jenkins said. “All we did was go to work and we knew that we’d be great.”
While the 2012 Saints allowed 12 teams to gain at least 400 yards, and four to gain at least 500, the 2013 version gave up 400 or more yards just twice.
In fact, opponents gained 400 yards or more in the first 10 games of the 2012 season. The 2013 group, meanwhile, had five games in which opponents failed to gain 250 yards of total offense, including two that didn’t even get to 200.
It did it with mostly the same players, though it was the additions that made the biggest difference. Rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis were integral parts of the defense, while nose tackle John Jenkins and end Glenn Foster became critical role players. It also helped that Ryan used hybrid linebacker-end Junior Galette, who finished second on the team with 12 sacks.
How big was the turn around?
Even the offensive players took notice.
“Any time you change the defensive schemes, bring in new coordinators, you have to kind of shake things up,” receiver Lance Moore said. “They did a great job of doing it in a single year. Going from one of the worst defenses ever to a top five defense finish is pretty remarkable.”
Ryan did it shorthanded, too. Expected starting linebacker Victor Butler was lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament during organized team activities in June. Linebacker Will Smith went down with an ACL, too, during a preseason game. No. 3 cornerback Patrick Robinson’s season finished in Week 2 with a patellar injury. And cornerback Jabari Greer was lost to a major knee injury in Week 11.
“That is a lot of attrition,” Payton said. “That is our game though. That is the nature of our league and I think our players and coaches have handled that real well and guys have stepped up and played a lot.”