If Sean Payton had any inkling of leaving New Orleans, of leaving the team he has coached for nine seasons (and 10 years, the difference due to his Bountygate-related suspension), this would have been the time to go.
The Giants’ coaching position, which the NFL Network’s Jeff Darlington reported mere days ago was Payton’s “dream team,” came open when Tom Coughlin stepped down. So, too, did the job in Philadelphia, where Payton began his NFL coaching career back in 1997. The 49ers reportedly wanted to court him, and the deep-pocketed Dolphins may have done the same. Indianapolis’s Jim Irsay even said the other day, when announcing that Chuck Pagano would continue to man his post, that he “could have walked someone in that door ... making a big splash”—a comment some believed hinted at Payton.
Instead, Payton will say put.
“I’ve said this before and I understand the interest and certainly the skepticism, if you will, but this is where I plan on coaching,” Payton said at a press conference Wednesday. “And I don't envision myself ever coaching for any other club.”
Interestingly enough, Payton did address rumors that the Saints might consider trading him to another club this off-season. Reports earlier in the week had the price tag sitting at a second-round draft pick for the veteran coach.
“I know Mickey [Loomis, the Saints’ GM] is too smart and I know no one’s giving up the compensation that he was looking [for] or researching,” Payton said. “That can only happen if I sign off on it. That kinda gets the cart ahead of the horse a little bit, and yet I understand how that can happen.
“I feel like anytime there’s possibly a report or a link, there’s an assumption that it’s coming from someone in my camp. My camp is really small, it’s just me and one other person.”
Payton’s return, coupled with Pagano’s similar story in Indianapolis, dealt a significant and somewhat surprising blow to the pool of available coaches. It is potentially bad news for the teams currently without a front man or in the process of considering their own coach’s future.
The Saints, meanwhile, will cross their fingers and hope this is the right call.
Payton’s lengthy tenure with the Saints, which began just as the franchise was moving back into the Superdome the year after Hurricane Katrina, has hit a rocky patch. The Saints finished 7–9 both last season and this year, as their defense plummeted to the league’s basement.
Payton’s current contract runs through the 2017 season. He said Wednesday regarding a possible extension that “at the right time, all those things will take care of themselves.”
A more pressing matter now for Loomis is the status of 36-year-old quarterback Drew Brees, who is due $19.75 million in base salary and carries a $30 million cap hit next season—the last on his current contract. The Saints could recoup $20 million of that hit by trading or releasing him, a fact that has led to heavy speculation Brees could be in a different uniform next season.
However, Payton called it a “good assumption” Brees will be back as well next year. “I texted him before I walked in here, just five minutes ago,” Payton said. “It was crystal clear, I'm not wanting to coach anywhere else or anyone else right now. He played outstanding this season, gutsy.”
This is a very different situation from the Pagano-Colts marriage, in a lot of ways. While Indianapolis is still searching for its breakthrough behind a young quarterback, the Saints already won a Super Bowl with Payton and Brees, and the duo seemingly crossed its prime awhile back. Brees finished the 2015 campaign scorching hot, but an inconsistent start from him played a noticeable role in New Orleans’ 1–4 start.
Even if the Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback rediscovered his mojo late in the year, he will turn 37 later this month. There simply cannot be many years left in his playing career. And with Coughlin leaving New York, Payton and Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy are now the third longest-tenured coaches in the NFL, behind only Bill Belichick and Marvin Lewis.
The Saints are fighting a battle against time.
“Ten years is a long time,” said Payton of his current stay with the Saints. “I’ve read and seen sometimes where the message can grow old or can become maybe not as effective [after that long], and yet I think maybe that really applied to teams 10, 15, 20 years ago when rosters didn’t have the movement they have now.”
He sounded Wednesday like a coach planning to stick it out for the long run, backed by a team still happy to have him. How will the coach and organization feel if the 2016 season brings more disappointment and another losing record? Everyone involved must be confident that will not occur, or at least that better days are not that far off, because the door was at least propped open this week for Payton to take his act elsewhere.
If he wanted this to be the end of the line, Payton could have made that happen.