NEW ORLEANS -- In January 2009, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton fired reactive defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and hired proactive, balls-to-the-wall Gregg Williams in an attempt to change the defensive culture.
In three seasons, Williams did that and then some, going from Super Bowl XLIV hero as the architect of a ball-hawking defensive unit to goat as the self-acknowledged mastermind of the scandalous Bounty program.
On Thursday, Payton abruptly dismissed Williams' successor, Steve Spagnuolo, this time to change the team's defensive culture AND scheme.
Spagnuolo's still-to-be-named replacement will oversee the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4, a move that Payton announced just two days after being reinstated from a season-long suspension by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. (Editor's note: Two potential candidates include Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini, both former head NFL coaches and former defensive assistants in New England under Bill Belichick.)
The suddenness of the decision indicates Spagnuolo probably was on Payton's chopping block during the season, perhaps once the Saints were officially eliminated from post-season consideration in December. It also suggests Payton already has zeroed in on his new DC (12 NFL teams employed the 3-4 in 2012, including Super Bowl XLVII participants Baltimore and San Francisco, Green Bay, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Houston, Washington and Arizona, among others).
A major reason for the Saints' 7-9 season rested with an underachieving defense that yielded an NFL single-season record of 7,042 yards.
Consequently, the spotlight falls on Spagnuolo, even for a season that seemed doomed from the start because of the unprecedented Bounty sanctions that essentially left the team playing with one hand tied behind its back.
After all, he was the coordinator, the captain of the defensive ship, the chief strategist and now the scapegoat.
In hindsight, Spagnuolo probably wasn't the right man for the Saints. Not because the defense yielded yards and points by the bushel but because his philosophy didn't necessarily mesh with the available personnel. (See square peg into round hole.) That became evident during the team's puzzling 0-4 start, and the Bounty scandal only exacerbated the problem.
So yes, Spagnuolo must shoulder some blame but Payton had to know what he was getting when he hired him back in January 2012.
I suspect that Spagnuolo's dismissal is a by-product of the scheme change, though the fact that his outfit embarrassed itself many times this season certainly didn't help his cause. But the Saints' defense needs other subtractions and additions during the offseason in order to get better.
Spagnuolo's departure and the same-day firing of secondary coach Ken Flajole just happen to be the first of many comings and goings on defense this offseason.
I only hope in the coming days, weeks and months that every Saints' defensive player looks in the mirror and simply asks himself -- "Did I do my job?'' -- especially that unnamed player who called for Spagnuolo's firing shortly after the season ended. He must be smiling now.
Some can say yes with a straight face but, clearly, the vast majority did not.
Now, Saints GM Mickey Loomis and Payton are left with the task of retooling a defense in free agency and the draft, tweaking the offense and whittling $17.5 million off the roster to get under the projected $121 million salary cap.
The bottom line is whether you play a 4-3 or 3-4, you got to have the players.
Ask Steve Spagnuolo.
NOTES: If the 2013 season were to start tomorrow and using the final 53-man roster in 2012 as the talent pool, my starting 3-4 lineup would be RDE Will Smith, NT Brodrick Bunkley, LDE Cameron Jordan, OLB David Hawthorne, ILB Jonathan Vilma, ILB Curtis Lofton and OLB Jonathan Casillas. Others in the mix are OLB Junior Galette, DE/OLB Martez Wilson, DT Akiem Hicks, DT Tom Johnson, DT Tyrunn Walker, DE Turk McBride, OLB Will Herring and a healthy OLB Chris Chamberlain. Keep in mind that team officials may explore trying to restructure the contracts of Smith and Vilma or release them outright. ... Not that I thought soon-to-be free agent DT Sedrick Ellis would re-sign with the team, but the shift to the 3-4 all but seals his fate in New Orleans. ... One reason why Sean Payton may have decided to go to a 3-4 scheme is because of the influence of the read-option offense that has taken the NFL by storm this season. I still think the Saints need to bolster their pass rush in free agency with a DE or OLB. ... The change in scheme also could mean the return of Vilma who could be teamed with Lofton in the middle. To be truthful, the Saints current roster might be better suited for a 3-4 now than 4-3. Time will tell.
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