Maybe the New Orleans Saints' season would have turned out much differently had Sean Payton been around. Even Payton, though, might not have been able to get a team so defensively challenged into the playoffs.
The Saints entered Sunday 281 yards shy of the NFL single-season record for most allowed -- a mark of 6,793 held by the 1981 Baltimore Colts. A 12-yard pass from Carolina's Cam Newton to Greg Olsen shot the Panthers up to 285 yards on the day, giving New Orleans the dubious record. All told, the Saints coughed up 530 Sunday (matching their worst defensive day of the year) to finish at a staggering 7,042 yards allowed on the season.
The '81 Colts, with their defense allowing 424.6 yards per game, finished just 2-14. New Orleans' opponents averaged 440.1 yards, making the Saints' 7-9 record rather remarkable and a testament to the Drew Brees-led offense. The second-worst team in yards allowed this year, heading into Sunday, was Jacksonville, at 391.3 per game.
New Orleans' lack of defensive firepower is nothing new. Even in their 2009 Super Bowl season, the Saints finished 20th in the league in points allowed and 25th in yardage.
In fact, five times in the past six seasons, New Orleans has ranked 23rd or lower in yards allowed.
This season, though, under multiple interim coaches and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Saints have sunk to previously unreached depths.
The issues started right away, too -- the Saints were the first to witness the Robert Griffin III show, allowing 459 yards in a Week 1 loss to the Redskins. That setback was the first of four for New Orleans to open the season and kicked off a nine-game stretch in which the Saints allowed 400 or more yards (they gave up 500-plus in three of those contests); dating back to last season's playoffs, the streak reached 11.
New Orleans pulled it together somewhat during Weeks 12-15, holding four straight opponents to fewer than 400 yards. However, the Saints loss three of those contests to all but eliminate them from playoff contention.
Payton will have some pieces in place to improve his team's defensive performance next season, specifically up front in Cameron Jordan, Brodrick Bunkley and Junior Galette. But without substantial progress this offseason, the Saints again will have to rely on Brees to light up the scoreboard each week.