Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints are close. As a matter of fact, they're VERY close.
Close to what exactly, you ask?
To becoming a contender once again, for a spot in the NFL Playoffs.
Even with some bad breaks and a rash of injuries last season, the Saints were a very competitive football team. With a few breaks "here and there", New Orleans would have been a Wild Card team in the 2016 NFC Playoffs.
And it's a reason for optimism as the team nears its 2017 Training Camp in just less than 3 weeks from now.
As it is, there are even more reasons for that optimism.
The team's defense is coming along, and they added some key pieces during the off-season that may now make them a Top 20 and possibly even a Top 15 unit overall. And that's even with the bad news that they received of the loss of starting defensive tackle Nick Fairley for the upcoming 2017 season and possibly the rest of his NFL career.
On top of that, another reason for optimism is that the team's offense has always has been very, very good in spite of its constantly changing parts; and arguably is THE best offensive system in the League for the past decade.
Which is exactly why that even after 3 straight losing seasons, it would be foolish of owner Tom Benson and the Saints organization, to ever even consider firing Payton.
However, those 3 straight losing seasons remain an issue for Payton and the Saints as they get closer to the start of the upcoming 2017 NFL season --- like a dark and stormy rain cloud blotting out the sky on an otherwise beautiful clear, sunny day.
Had the Saints found themselves back in the NFL Playoffs last season, then the contract that he signed following what was another 7-9 finish in 2015 would seem like the proverbial 'deal of the century'.
But instead, the Saints remain "stuck in neutral" --- and despite the overwhelming wave of optimism among the team and its rabidly loyal fan-base, the pundits and analysts at the national level are predicting further 'doom and gloom' for them in 2017.
In part, those bad forecasts from the National Media have been handed out simply because they consider the Saints to be a team lost somewhere out in the NFL wilderness; a team that is still in search of an identity for themselves as they attempt to break away from and escape the seemingly never-ending cycle of mediocrity that has enveloped and swallowed up the franchise since the end of the 2013 season (the last time they qualified for the Playoffs).
The Saints have shown just enough promise to both their fans and the organization itself, to convince all of them that they're about to "turn the corner" --- and that they’ll be able to win those extra 3 to 4 games this upcoming season that will make them a Playoff contender once again.
But that was the very same thing that was said about the Saints after the 2014 season.
And then it was said about them once again after the 2015 season.
And then, once again last year in 2016.
So much for the "3rd time being the charm".
What it's actually been is more of "the same old story" for Sean Payton and the Saints for the last few years.
Quite honestly, the Saints have been impressive at times. But yet at other times, they've flat out embarrassed themselves as well.
Last year, QB Drew Brees defied the odds at an age where other QB's are already thinking about and preparing for retirement; as he threw for over 5,000 passing yards for a NFL record 5th time in his career (more than all other QBs in NFL history combined).
While doing so, Brees and the Saints high-powered offensive scheme were ranked 1st in total offense and 2nd overall in the NFL in points scored per game.
Bur despite the accolades and the impressive rankings, on the flip side of things their defense hasn’t ranked higher than 27th overall in any of the past 3 seasons as New Orleans has compiled a won-loss record of 21-27 overall, for a winning percentage of .438.
Again, it's yet another prime example of the maddening inconsistency that has constantly seemed to plague this team ever since their loss to the Seahawks at Seattle in the 2013 Divisional Playoffs.
So --- why should we expect anything more than 7-9 once again in 2017? Do we really believe that they can "turn the corner" and finally make it back to the NFL Playoffs?
One thing is clear: there needs to be some accountability at the end of the 2017 NFL season, if the Saints do not finish any better than 7-9 once again.
And we don't mean slightly better than 7-9 by finishing 8-8, either.
"Better" as in double-digit wins and a spot in the NFL Playoffs "better".
But in order to do that, the Saints have to begin showing the consistency that seems to have escaped their grasp since that loss in the Seattle rain a few years ago that ended with an illegal forward lateral from now retired Saints living legend and former WR Marques Colston.
And as much as the responsibility for achieving that consistency lies with the players, the ultimate responsibility lies with the man in charge of it all: Sean Payton.
Saints fans often make the mistake of placing the blame for the Saints' recent lack of success at the feet of general manager Mickey Loomis; and while the criticism against Loomis is more than fair, the fact remains that the team and it the 'program' that's been in place since January of 2006, is exclusively Payton's.
No one can question Payton's commitment with getting the team back to the level of competitiveness that's required to win a Super Bowl every year.
But it also seems to beg the question of if he really wants it just as bad for himself, as the players do.
Most if not all coaches WANT to win a Super Bowl or a CFP / Division I national championship, but when they finally do so are tempted to "coast" on their achievements.
Only a handful of NFL or college head coaches at the highest level of success have been able to resist the urge of simply "going through the motions" at some point.
The coaching legends from the sport of football's long and storied history such as Vince Lombardi, Bear Bryant, Chuck Noll, and Bill Walsh (to name just a few), all approached the game with a special and unique mind set; and their goals to sustain greatness over an extended period of time required a totally different strategy to that end.
It's the same formula for success that coaches such as Bill Belicheck and Nick Saban have found year in and year our in the same decade that Payton's been in New Orleans.
They build programs that compete year end and year out, and even though they may not win their sport's ultimate prize every year, the competition still knows that these Patriots or Crimson Tide teams will be relevant when the Playoffs roll around.
The Belichecks and the Sabans of the world have the passion, the desire, and the drive every single year to sustain and maintain greatness; and they each look towards the goal of winning a championship every year as the start of something brand new --- rather than looking at it as the end to something old.
Building a winning program that can "survive the test of time" as Belicheck and Saban have been able to do, requires much planning and looking at things in the long term, which requires a different thought process.
Which is where one then has to ask: does Sean Payton look at himself and the Saints franchise in the same manner that Belicheck and Saban --- the two most successful head coaches of the current Era of football --- see themselves?
The Saints under Sean Payton have a Super Bowl win to their credit, but that was over 7 years ago now; and the statute of limitations has finally run out on the "good will" that Payton bought for himself presumably for all of eternity, among the Who Dat Nation faithful.
Sure, it's great when Drew Brees throws for another 5,000 yard season, but in the end: Saints fans want wins, not stats.
The proverbial natives are getting restless, and another 7-9 season won't go over well this year. The Saints and Payton are EXPECTED to win this year, and they know it.
You have seen and still see other head coaches around the NFL get fired for a lot less than finishing 7-9 every year. In that sense, Payton should be thankful that he has an owner like Tom Benson who's been more than willing to give him the chance to get things turned around,
But time is quickly running out --- for Benson, Brees, and ultimately, Payton as well.
Now certainly it's been much more than just poor performance or bad luck that has led the Saints up to this point, as they stand in front of the door of what many consider to be a "make or break" 2017 NFL season for New Orleans.
Yes, it's very true that a large part of the Saints' recent lack of success is due to an unbelievable amount of injuries that has left the team literally "crippled", especially last year when they lost most if not all of the players in their defensive secondary.
But things such as salary cap problems have figuratively "crippled" the Saints' ability to consistently remain a Playoff-caliber franchise, and the fact that the Saints have the 4th highest amount of 'dead money' heading into the upcoming 2017 season, bears that out.
To be perfectly honest: the Saints have made both bad business decisions and bad football decisions, and there really isn't any question that the two are directly related.
And once again, it all points right back at the person who is in charge of the football operations for the organization: you guessed it --- Sean Payton.
Sean Payton and the Saints have a well-known motto that says "DO YOUR JOB".
It still hangs on the wall of their indoor practice facility, and it serves as a stark reminder to the players and the organization that each and everyone of them, holds a key role in the franchise's ultimate success or failure.
In 2017, it's time for Sean Payton to finally to do HIS job --- and get the Saints back to where they belong......