Sean Payton's Suspension: What It Means for the NFC South

Seth VictorContributor IIIMarch 22, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 14:  Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints watches play from the sidelines the NFC Divisional playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on January 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  The 49ers won with a score of 36-32.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton is an offensive genius.  He transformed Drew Brees from a good quarterback (which he had been with the Chargers) to a Hall of Famer.  He was an innovator, bringing the wide-open, pass-happy spread to the NFL several years before it caught on with other teams.  He made the Saints relevant post-Katrina, taking them to the NFC Championship in 2007 and winning the Super Bowl in 2010.

All of this is relevant, of course, because Payton has been suspended for the year.

This will obviously have an effect on the NFC playoff picture next season.  The Saints finished 13-3 last year, coming within four points of the Packers on opening night to obtain the No. 1 overall seed.

Payton’s impact on this team cannot be understated.  I do not believe the team will fall off a cliff.  Brees will not allow that, and I expect defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to be competent in leading the team.  However, the Saints will play a first-place schedule next year and will greatly miss Payton’s game-planning in those difficult games.

This will affect the NFC South by bringing the Saints back to the pack.  However, Brees is too smart and too talented to let the offense slip too far, and Spagnuolo is a brilliant defensive mind, as he proved with the Giants.  In addition, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael was in charge for a couple games last season when Payton broke his leg, so it’s not as if he has no experience.  The Saints will remain competitive and probably make the playoffs, but won’t run away with the division the way they did this past season.

The Saints’ struggles will open the door for the Panthers and Falcons.

The Falcons appear to be going in the wrong direction, as they are a team without an identity.  Their personnel suggests a wide-open passing attack, but they don’t have the playcallers or offensive line to take advantage of that.  Their defense is iffy as well, having replaced Curtis Lofton with injury risk Lofa Tatupu in the center of their linebacking corps.

The Panthers are clearly a team on the rise.  They were already expected to be competitive in the division this year, but their timeline for relevance might be opened a year early with the Saints’ issues.  No longer will two games a year be unwinnable, and they will be playing a third-place schedule, which should benefit them.  As Cam Newton continues to get better and the defense returns Jon Beason and Thomas Davis to its linebackers, expect the Panthers to make a serious push for the division.

The Buccaneers, on the other hand, are in a free-fall.  While they have made some nice moves, they are still far less talented than the other three teams in the division and will struggle to be competitive as management and roster turnover continues.

Sean Payton is undeniably an offensive mastermind, but the Saints have the talent to win a bunch of games without him.  It will bring them back towards the pack, though, and the ultimate outcome of his suspension might be the acceleration of Cam Newton’s rise to stardom.