PITTSBURGH — New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton needed only three words after his team’s 35-32 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday to describe his relationship with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
“It’s been outstanding,” Payton said, hours after a report from CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora suggested there was a rift so deep between the Saints coach and Ryan that it could result in the defensive coordinator’s departure this offseason.
Payton unloaded on La Canfora’s report, which claimed “several animated sideline discussions” between Payton and Ryan that have been captured by television cameras this season were a reflection of the “growing disconnect” between the two. La Canfora attributed the information to anonymous sources and said it had been “privately acknowledged within the team’s headquarters that the men strongly dislike each other and a change is inevitable this offseason.”
The report was published after the Ryan-coached defense, which held opponents to the fourth-fewest yards and points during the 2013 regular season, had tumbled to No. 27 in the NFL this season entering Sunday’s game.
But the Saints beat the Steelers and improved to 5-7 largely because Ryan’s defense had two takeaways off which Payton’s offense then scored touchdowns, and it forced Pittsburgh to either settle for field goals or punt on five other drives. The Steelers also missed a field goal and turned the ball over on downs.
After the game, Payton exalted Ryan’s qualities — and dismissed La Canfora’s dispatch as a “splash report” meant to attract attention “regardless of if it’s true or not.”
“Jason gets his information from an old defensive coordinator,” said Payton, not specifying whether that ex-Saints coordinator was Gary Gibbs (2006-08), Gregg Williams (2009-11) or Steve Spagnuolo (2012). “(Ryan) and I get along and are doing great. (I love) his toughness and his passion — he’s there till when the crickets are gone. It’s hard when you’re not winning in this league, but I love what he’s doing.”
None of that answered why television cameras captured him and Ryan yelling at each other on more than one occasion this season. That happened in a Sept. 14 defeat at Cleveland. La Canfora reported it occurred in the Nov. 24 setback at home against Baltimore. And Ryan and Payton jawed at each other in view of a broadcast camera Sunday after the defense drew a penalty for having too many men on the field late in the third quarter — with the Steelers at New Orleans’ 1.
“That’s me, man!” Payton said when asked what that was about. “That’s just me being fired up. ... Yeah, I get upset when there’s 12 guys on the field. It doesn’t mean I’m looking for another defensive coach. I’m going to be upset again — you’re going to see more clips of it.”
Payton also mentioned blasting special-teams coordinator Greg McMahon and his players. Those moments aren’t televised as frequently simply because they don’t involve Ryan, he said.
It should be noted that Payton was seen on TV yelling at McMahon when New Orleans took a timeout before a special-teams play in the fourth quarter. And, after Payton successfully challenged a second call by the officials Sunday, he bumped fists and bodies with Ryan while smiling widely.
The players said they didn’t mind Payton getting in team members’ faces during games.
“When your parents are yelling at you, they care; coaches (are) the same way,” pass-rusher Junior Galette said. “When they stop speaking to you, that’s when you’re worried. ... (Being yelled at) is clearly a good thing to have, but by the same token, you better stop being yelled at and do your job.”
Safety Kenny Vaccaro, who accounted for one of New Orleans’ interceptions Sunday, added, “It’s all love. I think they’re just two competitors.”
Payton also knocked down two other Sunday morning reports. One, from ESPN, said the Saints were interested in signing free-agent running back Ray Rice; the other, from NFL Network, claimed the team was ready to draft quarterback Drew Brees’ successor this offseason.
Regarding Rice, who was released by the Baltimore Ravens after surveillance video from an elevator showed him striking a woman he later married, Payton said the team was content with its depth at running back. He also said Khiry Robinson would return for next Sunday’s home game against Carolina (3-8-1) after missing every game since Oct. 19 with a forearm injury.
As for the report involving Brees, Payton said, “Is this where we’re at? Is anybody going to ask about the Steelers?”
Payton moved on to other topics from there.