When Sean Payton returned this season, the Saints went from mediocre to fantastic again

The 2012 and 2013 New Orleans Saints are a great test study.

How much does a coach really mean to a NFL team's success? Sean Payton is giving the answer.

The Saints won 13, 11 and 13 games in 2009-11, with a Super Bowl championship in that run. Then Payton got suspended for last season because of the bounty scandal, and the Saints went 7-9. Payton returned, and the Saints are 4-0 after demolishing the previously undefeated Miami Dolphins 38-17. The Saints look like one of the top three teams in the NFL right now.

Maybe it's too easy to credit Payton's return for the Saints being a contender again, but what other conclusion is there to make?

The defense bottomed out last year. This year the defense is far better even though there weren't many personnel additions. And the improvement comes despite a number of injuries to key defensive players. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is getting a lot of credit for turning the defense around, but he has been a NFL coordinator since 2004 and the only time his defense finished in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed was with Oakland in 2006. He's not the only reason for the improvement.

[Watch: At age 37, post-neck surgery, Peyton Manning better than ever]

The offense is pretty much the same as last year. Quarterback Drew Brees was as masterful as ever on Monday night, completing 30-of-39 passes for 413 yards and four touchdowns. The cast around him is mostly the same, with a couple of new young receivers sprinkled in.

This is basically the same roster that lost four home games last year and had losing streaks of four and three games. But the Saints' coach is back, and on Monday night they crushed a Dolphins team that came in 3-0. It was a vintage Saints performance. Brees found every receiver and was deadly accurate all night. Running back Darren Sproles made play after play when the Saints figured out ways to get him the ball in space. The defense flew around and held a fourth straight opponent to less than 20 points.

Maybe it's too easy to say Payton is the only reason for the Saints' rebirth. But it has to start with him.

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