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Barry Hirstius

Give Sean Payton Credit: Coaching Staff Changes Paying Off Big Time So Far

In life, sometimes making a change is hard. This past off-season for Saints head coach Sean Payton, that unpleasant experience for him came when he made several changes to his coaching staff; and they were changes in which he was forced to let go of a few position coaches who were not only long-time assistants of his, but also personal friends off the field as well.

For the past few seasons, Saints fans were bemoaning the fact that Payton refused to acknowledge (or simply chose to ignore altogether) the undeniable fact that 3 of his position coaches in particular were simply just not doing their jobs well enough, to achieve success --- or at least the success that Saints fans now expect from a team that won a Super Bowl a few years back -- in this current state of the NFL in 2017.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Those men were now former linebackers coach / assistant head coach Joe Vitt, former defensive line coach Bill Johnson, and former special teams coordinator Greg McMahon.

I used to joke when I wrote for a previous website, that one or all 3 of the men may have had incriminating photos of Payton in a compromising or unflattering situation, and were blackmailing him to keep their jobs.

And while I meant it purely as a joke, there were times that it seemed almost plausible; considering the fact that those 3 men in particular were able to keep their jobs for so long as they did, given their less than stellar results of the past few seasons.

But immediately after the season, Payton did essentially what he HAD to do, if he intended to keep HIS OWN job down the line.

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Payton fired five assistant coaches, which included his 3 close friends (Vitt, Johnson, and McMahon), along with assistant special teams coach Stan Kwan and defensive assistant/linebackers James Willis.

Vitt is now in Miami, where he has joined the staff of his son-in-law: Dolphins head coach Adam Gase. Johnson is now in Los Angeles, where he is coaching the Rams defensive line. And McMahon is serving as local college powerhouse LSU football’s special teams analyst, but can’t do any on-field coaching.

Now there's 2 ways to look at this.

One is that Payton was being progressive and wanted a "fresh approach" to the way that the Saints do things with regard to how they teach their young players coming into the League. And the other is that Payton was simply just trying to save his own ass.

However, no matter how you choose to look at it, this much is a fact: we have to give Payton credit, because he has "struck pure gold" with the 3 men that he brought in to replace his old friends: linebackers coach Mike Nolan, defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, and special teams coordinator Bradford Banta.

Payton's staff changes are paying off big time so far --- and although we're only a little over a week into Camp and the first Pre-Season game isn't until next Thursday Night against the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, these 3 men have made an undeniable impact upon the Saints franchise.

Nolan has been in coaching in one way, shape, or form of another dating all the way back to the 1981 NFL season; and has an ample amount of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator as well as a stint as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers from 2005-08.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Nolan is considered by some to be a defensive "guru", because of his vast knowledge and experience as well as his flexibility to implement either of the sport's two basic defensive alignments, the 3-4 and the 4-3.

And though it's way too early to tell if the Saints LB corps is "improved" over last season after just six total practices into 2017 Training Camp, Nolan's impact thus far is indisputable.

Most notably, Nolan at this point appears to have "saved' the career of 3rd year linebacker Stephone Anthony; who it's been well-publicized struggled last year with reading and diagnosing offenses, particularly in his zone-coverage responsibilities while he was lined up at strongside /"Sam" linebacker -- the position that he was moved to last year after a somewhat impressive debut season as a rookie in 2015 where he played at middle / "Mike" linebacker and led the team in tackles.

Anthony has been lining up at either the "Mike" or the weakside / "Will" linebacker spot through the first week and a half of Camp, and his marked improvement and stellar play to this point is an absolute testament to Nolan's coaching ability.

Photo courtesy of Michael DeMocker, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

Over the years, Nolan's reputation for his unique, "hands-on" approach has become universally loved by the players whom he's guided; which New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill explains is because that instead of just barking out orders or instructions to them, Nolan personally takes the time to explain in great detail just exactly what it is that they need to do not just physically, but mentally as well.

That approach has obviously worked with Anthony, and it will be interesting going forward to see if Anthony can carry his stellar play in Camp, over to the games that count for real.

Not to be outdone, new defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen appears to have made a similar impact.

Nielsen, whom the team hired back in February from his previous job as the defensive line coach at North Carolina State; has made huge impact since taking over from former Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson -- who fell out of favor with Saints fans in the past few seasons because of the team's notable lack of a pass rush.

Much in the very same manner that new linebackers coach Mike Nolan has had a huge impact on the Saints linebacker corps, Nielsen has quickly done the same for the Saints D-Line.

Photo courtesy of Micahel C. Hebert

Nielsen, who played the defensive tackle position himself once upon a time at Southern Cal in the late 1990's and early 2000's, is much like Mike Nolan a popular coach among players --- and a position coach who New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson said in his recent article a few months back, is an energetic, intense presence who will apparently take an active role on the practice field.

Nielsen too has also become well known for his "hands-on" approach to coaching and teaching players, similarly to that of Nolan; which Erickson notes is the act of him personally and physically demonstrating technique, even if that means putting his hand in a 3-point stance and getting "down in the dirt" to show a player how to come off the ball and execute a move.

That "hands on" approach to teaching players was something that observers say wasn't really embraced all that much previously by the former 'old school' D-Line coach Bill Johnson. 

Nielsen was thrown a curve just a few months in to taking the job, when it was revealed that veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley would miss the 2017 season -- and possibly the rest of his NFL career -- with a heart condition.

But Nielsen is undaunted by the loss of Fairley, and has chosen instead to "play the hand that he's been dealt".

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Times-Picayune

We'll see here in the upcoming weeks ahead if Nielsen's coaching style is paying off with a handful of talent youngsters manning the Saints interior and outside edge rush positions, including last year's top pick Sheldon Rankins, 4th Round pick David Onyemata, and up-and-coming reserve Justin Zimmer; and defensive ends Alex Okafor, Trey Hendrickson, and 3rd year veteran Hau'oli Kikaha.

Last but certainly not least, there's new special teams coordinator and Baton Rouge native, Bradford Banta.

Banta has been in coaching since 2007, first as a tight ends coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga. He made the move to the NFL level in 2008, working for 5 seasons in Detroit as a special teams assistant and linebackers coach through the 2013 season. Before coming home to Louisiana to join the Saints, Banta spent the past 3 seasons (2014-16) as a special teams assistant for the Washington Redskins.

It goes without saying that the man that Bradford replaced, Greg McMahon; had a run with the Saints that was marked by a series of special teams gaffes and mental mistakes that often left the team at a disadvantage.

Thus far, that doesn't appear it will be the case anymore under Banta.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert / The Times Picayune beat writer Josh Katzenstein says that Banta has plenty of ideas that he wants to implement that he believes will help the Saints' special teams unit improve this year, after yet another rough performance (more like godawful, to be honest) under McMahon in 2016.

Katzenstein says that the most noticeable difference from the previous way that McMahon did things before and now the way they're done in this year's Camp up to this point; have been Banta's special teams drills.

Among the notable differences are things such as having players run around in circles around various objects such as traffic cones; as well as the utilization of medicine balls that involves having the players lift the medicine balls above their heads as they balance orange boards. 

It's an unorthodox methodology for sure; but one used to improve both a player's mental and physical capabilities; since it tests both their agility and their ability to think quickly on their feet.

Katzenstein says that as much as improving the way that things are done with regard to training methods and technique, Banta's biggest challenge heading into the Pre-Seaon will be finding the Saints' long snapper for this season. The candidates to be the underappreciated but critically important position of long snapper at this moment are veteran Thomas Gafford and rookie Chase Dominguez.

Katzenstein notes that because Banta has a wealth of experience as a snapper from back when he was a player in the NFL at one time, he can use his instincts to determine how the contest is going, whether it's judging the speed on snaps or other intricacies of the position.   

Photo courtesy of David Grunfeld, The New Orleans Times-Picayune

We'll find out in the upcoming weeks ahead if all of Banta's new methods are working, though one can only assume that he'll (hopefully anyway) have a much greater degree of success than the one that the team experienced under McMahon.

The bottom line is that we have to give Sean Payton credit, where credit is due.

Those who have been extremely critical of Payton (including myself) and have been on his case constantly over the last few years to make the changes that were necessary to his coaching staff and which were obviously long overdue, should be pleased.

Though Payton deserves much of the blame himself for keeping around the men whom most felt and were directly responsible for much of the team's failures in the past 3 seasons that saw them finish with 3 consecutive (7-9) losing seasons (and 3 straight years of not making it to the NFL Playoffs), he also deserves the acknowledgement that he addressed the issue head-on.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

And even if it was to eventually save his own hide, rather than saving the franchise from an unimaginable prospect of a 4th straight losing season; at least it can be said -- up to this point anyway -- that the much-needed changes appear to be paying off big-time.

Just HOW BIG that they do or don't eventually pay off however, is still yet to be determined.......

Big Easy Magazine contributing writer and Saints News Network columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and writer previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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