TAMPA, Fla. -- Rob Ryan's fate as the New Orleans Saints' defensive coordinator -- for better or for worse -- was probably already determined before the second half of a meaningless game Sunday.
But just in case Ryan needed a final impression to help his cause, his embattled unit delivered. They pitched a second-half shutout as New Orleans rallied for a 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season finale.
Who knows what that will count for -- considering the Bucs' offense was so lackluster they had to field questions afterward about whether they were tanking for the No. 1 draft pick.
At the very least, Ryan's players got to make one last case for him on the field after they have so passionately supported him off the field throughout this wayward season for the Saints (7-9).
"I'd be shocked [if Ryan gets fired] because everybody here loves the system that he has," said Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who provided a game-clinching safety with 1:05 remaining and credited Ryan for lighting into the defense at halftime after their slow start by harping on things such as body language and telling them to, "Act like you want to be here."
"That's my guy," Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis, whose interception set up the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, said of Ryan. "You gotta always give a guy more than one [bad] year. You rarely find coaches, players who come out and have fantastic seasons every season. ... I know his capability, what he's capable of. I feel as though he's one of the best."
"Man, I love him as a coach. I almost want to tear up just even talking about him," said safety Kenny Vaccaro, who didn't play Sunday because of a quad injury.
That support should count for something.
I'd lean toward keeping Ryan because there is nothing more important for an NFL coordinator than having that "buy-in" from his players, that belief that he'll lead them in the right direction if they follow the plan.
The Saints defenders passionately believe in Ryan because he helped inspire breakout performances from so many of them in 2013, when they ranked fourth in the NFL in yards allowed.
However, their flop in 2014 might have been even more drastic. It's not an easy decision for coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis.
There's also the unknown factor of Payton's relationship with Ryan. Payton strongly denied reports of a rift earlier this year and praised Ryan's passion and work ethic. We'll learn soon just how strong Payton's belief is in those traits.
Ultimately, the most important decision for the Saints is whether they believe Ryan can get the most out of core players such as safety Jairus Byrd, defensive end Cam Jordan, linebacker Curtis Lofton, Lewis, Galette and Vaccaro. They've invested too much in those guys to blow the whole thing up and bring in all new players.
Ryan and the Saints were a perfect fit for each other in 2013, after they had both been humbled so badly in 2012 -- Ryan being fired by the Dallas Cowboys and the Saints having set the NFL record for most yards allowed in a season under former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Ryan said the other day that in 2013, when they were at their best, they were the "NOLA defense, where nobody likes our ass."
This year, however, Ryan was one of many who admitted the Saints defense "drank the Kool-Aid" and bought into their lofty preseason hype.
Several players have agreed they felt they already "arrived." Galette insisted that didn't affect work ethic or passion in practice. But he said it might have led guys to believe they could get away with talent alone at times -- himself included.
The Saints defense was downright sloppy this year; they missed tackles, blew coverage assignments in the secondary, over-ran gaps -- issues that plagued Ryan at times in past stops, with critics claiming his schemes are too complex and undisciplined.
The Saints also didn't force enough turnovers or bring enough pressure consistently. They basically didn't do much of anything well and finished in the bottom five in the NFL in total yards, rushing yards, third downs and takeaways. According to ESPN Stats and Information, they were the least- efficient unit in the NFL -- even worse than that 2012 season.
But Galette insisted this unit is still miles better than that one.
"[We were] historically one of the worst defenses ever in 2012. Then Rob comes here, and all of a sudden we're top five. It's not a coincidence," Galette said. "So it's unfair to just after one down year put all the blame on him. Everybody had their fingers in the jar. We'll get that corrected in the offseason."