In the NFL, a team’s coaching staff is a revolving door of sorts. The dawn of a new season sees assistants and head coaches alike coming and going in search of more money, larger responsibility or the opportunity to latch on to a Super Bowl contender.
Once again in 2009, big names such as Dom Capers, Steve Spagnuolo and Mike Nolan are in new places.
Change too, has come to the New Orleans Saints. The franchise shuffled their coaching staff over the offseason in an effort to shock some life into a flailing defense while maintaining consistency and balance in a high powered offense and steady special teams unit.
Following a disappointing 8-8 season in which the Saints’ ranked 23rd in pass defense and 17th against the run, offensive architect Sean Payton apparently found religion in the form of defense.
Payton was so committed to improving the Saints’ defense that he reportedly took a $250,000 pay cut in order to woo veteran guru Gregg Williams over from Jacksonville.
If that wasn’t enough, the Saints’ pass happy commander also openly acknowledged going into the 2009 draft that New Orleans would dedicate its picks to shoring up Williams’ defense.
Williams, a former head coach in Buffalo and defensive coordinator with stops in Houston, Tennessee, and D.C. before spending 2008 in Jacksonville, was named to the latter position shortly after the season ended.
A highly regarded 18-year veteran of the NFL coaching ranks, Williams cut his teeth in Houston, first under the tutelage of Jack Pardee at the University of Houston, then as an assistant with Oilers’ Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan in the early '90s.
While a bit more reserved than Ryan—who infamously threw a punch at Oilers’ Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the sideline of a nationally televised regular season game— Williams demands the same high level of intensity from his players that was the hallmark of Ryan’s punishing defensive units.
Following a successful stint with the Tennessee Titans, Williams struggled in his first and only head coaching opportunity, going 17-31 in three seasons in Buffalo.
While his return to defense as a coordinator for the Redskins and later the Jacksonville Jaguars proved to be up and down, Williams continued to be in high demand around the league, fielding several coordinator offers before signing with New Orleans in January.
Williams’ style of defense is an attacking (mostly) 4-3 scheme that looks to pressure the quarterback. The name of Williams’ game is aggression and intensity. One thing he’s made clear since coming on board is that he’d rather his squad be aggressive and make some mistakes here and there than tepidly avoid penalties.
Blitzes from anywhere and everywhere aim to disrupt the opposing quarterback and force turnovers. It’s a welcome change for fans of a squad that managed only 28 sacks last year.
Yet, no matter what voodoo Williams cooks up, the 2009 Saints will once again be defined by the juggernaut that is their passing attack.
The New Orleans offense also saw a change in the coaching ranks in ’09 as former quarterbacks coach Pete Carmichael, Jr. was promoted to Offensive Coordinator following the departure of Doug Marrone.
Unlike Williams, Carmichael is expected to keep the offense on the track laid by Marrone, who left to take the head job at Syracuse. In two of three seasons under Marrone and Payton, the Saints’ offense was the most productive in the league.
While Payton is unmistakeably running the show on the offensive side of the ball, Carmichael—considered an up and comer who reportedly turned down other coordinator opportunities to stay in New Orleans—is credited with helping to nurture quarterback Drew Brees. Carmichael spent four years with Brees in San Diego as a wide receivers/quality control coach before the pair came to the Crescent City in 2006.
The one steady, constant factor amidst these coaching moves is Head Coach Sean Payton, who in just his fourth year leading the Saints, finds himself behind the wheel of the league’s most potent passing attack.
Payton also took on Rhoades’ voracious appetite for studying and game planning at all hours of the day, which for Rhoades famously included only 2-3 hours of sleep per night.
Following a rocky three seasons as Offensive Coordinator for the New York Giants that culminated in then coach Jim Fassell stripping Payton of his play calling duties, he remained in the NFC East, catching on as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys.
Payton excelled in Dallas, pulling the equivalent of a rabbit out of a hat by guiding beleaguered quarterback Quincy Carter to a 3,000 yard passing season.
In 2006, Payton brought the west coast style to New Orleans with immediate results: he was named Coach of the Year after guiding the Saints to a 12-6 record and NFC Championship appearance.
In Payton’s offense, the Saints pass, pass, and then pass some more. New Orleans totaled just under 5,000 yards in the air in 2008. The bulk of the passing production comes on short, quick passes—screens, slants, and the like—rather than long bombs. Payton relies heavily on Brees’ ability to quickly read defenses and get rid of the ball out of a three or five-step drop.
Rounding out the coaching staff is recently appointed Special Teams Coordinator Greg McMahon. Following 15 years of coaching special teams in the college ranks, McMahon joined the Saints as an assistant on special teams in 2006.
Like Williams, McMahon expects his ragtag bunch of utility players to go after the ball. With return men like Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, he’s also seen some success in going after the end zone.