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Sean Payton's future as clear as a bayou marsh

By The Sports Xchange   |   Jan. 6, 2016 at 1:55 AM
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METAIRIE, La. -- On Black Monday, when NFL coaches and front-office executives come and go at an alarming rate, all was quiet for the New Orleans Saints.

Despite the rampant speculation surrounding Saints coach Sean Payton and his future with the franchise, it seems everything was normal, with players having physicals and exit interviews and the evaluation of the whole operation set to begin in the wake of a second consecutive 7-9 season.

After reports on Sunday morning, prior to the Saints' 20-17 season-ending win over the Atlanta Falcons, indicated that Payton was scheduled to meet Monday with general manager Mickey Loomis there was no news coming out of the team's headquarters here in the little New Orleans suburb.

In his postgame news conference Sunday, Payton wasn't ready to answer the speculation that has been building since mid-October when a reporter tried to ask him about it.

"We got the players in (Monday). ... We got to evaluate the roster," Payton said. "We got a lot of things we got to do. If I feel the need to get you an itinerary, I will.

"That's the answer there. ... That's the answer. That's the answer," he added. "You with me? I can't be more clear."

Included in the most recent batch of reports were that Payton has had people inquiring about various jobs and that it may only take a second-round draft pick to get him away from the Saints, who have Payton under contract for the next two seasons.

Among the teams Payton has already been linked to are the Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants -- and possibly, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Of course, he could remain in New Orleans after recently building a new home there.

Not even quarterback Drew Brees, whose own future with the team is also uncertain considering he's currently scheduled to count $30 million against next season's salary cap, knows how it's going to play out.

"I have voiced this for the last few weeks: I am very hopeful that we are all going to be here (in 2016)," he said, "and we're going to prepare ourselves to make a run at it for the next few years."

REPORT CARD FOR 2015 SEASON

--PASSING OFFENSE: A-minus. The Saints led the NFL with 310.6 passing yards per game and generally had good numbers all across the board as Drew Brees had another big season at the age of 36. Brees probably would have had another 5,000-yard season if he hadn't missed a game in Week 3 as he threw for 4,870 yards. He completed 428 of 627 passes, hitting 68.3 percent of his attempts and throwing 32 TDs to compile a passer rating of 101.0. Brees had 11 interceptions, six fewer than 2014, and was sacked 31 times -- partly because of a series of injuries along the offensive line. In their first season without All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, the Saints had six players top the 400-yard mark in receiving yards. After a bit of a slow start, second-year wide receiver Brandin Cooks caught 84 passes for 1,138 yards with nine TDs, while 35-year-old tight end Benjamin Watson had a career year with 74 catches for 825 yards and six scores. First-year pro Willie Snead went from the practice squad to catching 69 balls for 984 yards and three TDs. Marques Colston (520), Brandon Coleman (454) and Mark Ingram (405) also surpassed 400 yards.

--RUSHING OFFENSE: C. While they finished 24th in rushing with 93.2 yards per game, the Saints get a passing grade because they never gave up despite a rash of injuries at the position. Mark Ingram, who was on his way to a 1,000-yard season before he went on injured reserve with a shoulder problem, still rushed for 769 yards and a 4.6 average with six TDs. Backup Khiry Robinson was lost at midseason with a fractured ankle after gaining 180 yards and four scores. While free-agent pickup C.J. Spiller was a nonfactor with 112 rushing yards, Tim Hightower was a pleasant surprise. After being out of the NFL for three seasons after tearing up his knee, Hightower made the roster out of training camp, but was cut after the first game. He rejoined the team after Robinson was lost for the season and took over after Ingram went down, rushing for 375 yards and four TDs while averaging 3.9 yards per carry.

--PASS DEFENSE: D minus. The only thing that saves this grade from being worse is a few good performances against some of the league's top receivers like Atlanta's Julio Jones and Roddy White (in their first meeting), Houston's DeAndre Hopkins, Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, and Detroit's Calvin Johnson. Otherwise, it was poor, to say the least, as they were plagued by injuries to cornerback Keenan Lewis and backup safety Rafael Bush, and cornerback Brandon Browner was plagued by penalties. For starters, the Saints allowed an NFL-record 45 touchdown passes and finished 31st in passing yards at 284.0 yards per game. Opposing receivers averaged 12.8 yards per reception as the Saints, who got only seven interceptions from their secondary, gave up far too many big plays.

--RUN DEFENSE: F. The Saints were extremely youthful along the defensive line -- with the exception of end Cameron Jordan and tackle Kevin Williams -- and at linebacker, and it showed in the final stats. They finished 31st against the run, allowing 129.8 yards per game and giving up 4.9 yards a rush while struggling regularly throughout the season to get off the field.

--SPECIAL TEAMS: C. Punter Thomas Morstead was plagued for much of the season by a quadriceps injury, but still averaged 45.6 gross yards and 40.7 net yards per kick. He also had 20 punts downed inside the 20 and had only four touchbacks. Kicking was an adventure as Zach Hocker, who won the job in preseason, was only 9-of-13 in field goals and missed an extra point. Kai Forbath replaced Hocker and also was 9-of-13 with a missed PAT even though he kicked a career-long 57-yard field goal. The Saints averaged 8.6 yards per kickoff return with rookie Marcus Murphy returning one 74 yards for a touchdown, but the Saints averaged just 21.5 yards on kickoff returns even though Murphy netted 25.0 yards per return before going on IR late in the season. In kick coverage, the Saints allowed 8.3 yards per punt return, but gave up 26.5 yards per kickoff return when Morstead wasn't able to kick off.

--COACHING: B. With rumors swirling about his future with the team from the middle of October through the end of the season, Sean Payton did a good job keeping a team that was rebuilt in the offseason on an even keel. That held true even after a poor 1-4 start and a four-game losing streak in November and early December that knocked them out of playoff contention. The Saints, who won three of their last four games, were competitive in losing two games to the Carolina Panthers by a total of eight points.

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