The whispers and hints foreshadowed this day.
Rob Ryan tried to say it several times last season. If you listened to the former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator’s interviews last season, there were plenty of times when he made vague statements designed to make his audience wonder whether he had full control of the defense.
It started during training camp last summer, when Ryan talked about the Saints having a vision and him being the guy to advance that vision. In other words, he was trying to say he wasn’t running the defense he designed — or least not entirely.
The comments became less veiled as the season wore on and the bolts continued to shake loose until finally things bottomed out and Ryan was ejected from his job.
So, it should be little surprise that Ryan told his version of events during an interview with TheMMQB.com this week in an attempt to clear some blame from his name.
“The only thing I regret is two years ago, when this (scheme change) was going to happen, I should have gone into Sean (Payton’s office) and talked to him,” Ryan said. “Sean is a good person. I didn’t; I just let it happen, so I deserve what I got. Look, I’ve been fired before. But I get pissed in New Orleans because I know I am better than that. I am a way better coach than I was allowed to be, and that’s just the truth. Oh, we are dead last in defense. Well, yeah, you are going to be dead last playing this (expletive) defense.”
First things first: None of this stuff matters now. Ryan is gone. Dennis Allen is in. The defense stunk last year, and that needs to change if this team wants to get out of purgatory. All other talk is gossip.
But given that Ryan was a prominent figure here and came out swinging in this interview, these comments demand some attention. So, it will get some. (Hopefully for the last time.)
There’s no question things changed during Ryan’s tenure. All you have to do is look at how the Saints operated during his first season, when he lifted the defense from the bottom of the league in yards allowed into the top five — and then look at some tape from last season. The changes are obvious.
Last season, the team played more single-high safety looks and operated more closely to how the Seattle Seahawks play than what Ryan did during his first season. One scheme worked. One didn’t. It makes for a convenient talking point.
“We changed the entire style of play. It was strange,” Ryan said. “But, hey, I did the best job I could. And it wasn’t good enough.”
There very well might be some truth to what Ryan is saying. But here’s the thing: It was still his defense.
If he’s telling the truth and it wasn’t his idea to change things, he still agreed to run the scheme. Everything that happened after that was under his watch. As Ryan said, if he thought it wasn’t going to work at inception, he should have protested the changes.
That never happened.
He can attempt to pass the buck on where players lined up and how the defense operated. But that sweeps a whole lot of issues under the rug. What about all the times there were 10 or 12 players on the field? What about the communication issues? What about all the penalties, week after week?
Payton understands the impact of injuries and talent deficiencies. He has lamented the loss of leadership at some key spots. He doesn’t seem like the type to jump down a coordinator’s throat on the sideline when a less talented player gets beaten by a better player, or when an inexperienced player makes a mistake.
What he had little tolerance for was the aforementioned communication issues, avoidable mistakes and repeatable errors. Those things never went away under Ryan’s watch. Some of them got worse as time wore on.
That’s not the scheme. That’s coaching.
“Ultimately, it really came down to just organization, getting the players lined up, getting the call and, I mean, there were a handful of things that ultimately led to that decision,” Payton said during an interview with Pro Football Talk later Friday morning.
And what about the claim that it wasn’t Ryan’s defense?
“We tried to implement some schemes we thought would help our defense,” Payton said. “But the idea that it wasn’t his defense — or that he wasn’t, you know, in charge of it — is silly.”
We can argue over which scheme would have fit this team better. Maybe Ryan’s way of doing things would have better suited the personnel. Maybe he would have been more effective doing things a different way or with different players.
But, as Payton said, fundamental issues ultimately led to Ryan’s exile. There’s a reason communication issues are still a talking point after the issue was first raised two seasons ago. It’s a tired topic, but it will remain relevant until the issue is fixed.
Is the occasional substitution error more tolerable when your defense isn’t among the worst in the league? Perhaps, but at a certain point, those things have to be cleaned up.
Maybe the Saints shouldn’t have hired Ryan to run schemes that weren’t natural to him, or kept him around after those changes were put in place. But Ryan should have spoken up if he felt it was going to lead to doom. Short of that, he could have at least operated a more disciplined defense.
In the end, even with this stuff coming out now, it leads to the same place: Ryan’s gone, and Allen is the defensive coordinator. Assigning blame for last season does no good — unless, of course, you have a résumé to protect.
Everyone involved would have rather seen Ryan’s defenses succeed than struggle. What matters now is that the Saints need to get better.
That opinion won’t get as much attention as Ryan’s, but that’s the only thing that counts in New Orleans.