Rabalais: Unconventional Rob Ryan seems like right fit

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan gives instruction to his players during training camp Saturday in Metairie. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan gives instruction to his players during training camp Saturday in Metairie.

At the back end of the property in Metairie that is now the New Orleans Saints/Pelicans combined headquarters, they’re building the basketball team a new practice gym.

At the front end of the property, they’re building the Saints a new defense.

You don’t have to know as much about football as Sean Payton to know that the Saints defense needed to be stripped to the studs and subjected to an extreme makeover.

While Payton was banished from the team last year for his role in the Bountygate scandal, the Saints set new lows for defense the likes of which John Mecom never even suffered through in his worst nightmares (also known as the Hank Stram years).

New Orleans gave up 7,042 yards last year, an NFL record. Do you know how long 7,042 yards is? That’s four miles. Picture Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Matt Ryan passing a baton in a relay from the foot of Canal Street to the New Orleans Museum of Art and you get the idea.

Yes, having Payton back in cahoots with Drew Brees will make the Saints offense even scarier, but they can’t stay on the field all the time. What the Saints need more than anything is a defense that can plant a stop sign in the ground once in a while and give the ball back to Messrs. Brees and Payton.

Enter Rob Ryan, new defensive coordinator. He’s big, brassy, and looks not so much like a saint but a pirate: flowing hair, a bit of stubble, dressed all in black. That means if he’s successful at his job, you will see lots of people paying homage in Rob Ryan costumes next Mardi Gras.

He seems like a good fit for the city of New Orleans, but is he a good fit with the team and with Payton?

Back in 2009, Payton and then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams got along
famously. The fact that Williams’ defense produced 39 turnovers, the most of the Payton era and an integral component in the Saints’ Super Bowl run that season, probably helped their relationship in no small measure.

As it turned out, the marriage didn’t end well. Williams was painted as a major villain in the whole Bountygate affair and the Saints defense sank into something beyond mediocrity last season under Steve Spagnuolo.

Ryan’s reign is a complete reboot. The Saints are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, shifting ends like Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson to outside linebackers.

There are those who say the Saints personnel is ill-suited to the 3-4 at this point and that Ryan will find bobsledding down Bourbon Street easier than improving the Saints’ NFL-worst rush defense (147.6 yards per game surrendered).

The answer to that is:

1) Do Ryan and the Saints have anything to lose by doing something drastically different?

2) How much worse could the defense be?

The good news for Ryan is after the Saints got torched by so many opponents last season, the bar of success that needs to be cleared is about knee high. Just about any improvement — say, lopping a couple of tenths of a mile off that record number of yards allowed — will be hailed as progress.

So would ratcheting up the Saints’ middling plus-2 turnover ratio. Setting up the offense with some juicy field position would help the cause significantly and will probably be the best that could be expected of this defense as far as contributing to a playoff-worthy 10- or 11-win season.

But back to Rob and Sean. There was a rumor around the time Ryan was hired that the Saints wanted to contractually limit his opportunities to talk to the media (Rob’s mouth has at times been known to turn into Von Ryan’s Express).

The media-conscious NFL wouldn’t let such a thing fly, but to be sure, Ryan, in his few brief words to reporters so far, has been much the team man.

“Our philosophy is, we want to work hard, do the right thing, evaluate these players and choose the right ones to have the best team,” Ryan said Saturday.

“We want to be the poster boys for this Saints program: discipline, accountability, toughness. That’s what we need to show on defense.”

No doubt that’s what Payton wants to hear. How long he will have Ryan around saying it will depend not on his words but the results.