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Why Sean Payton Should Consider Moving On From the Saints

As New Orleans embarks on a search for its new franchise QB, the longtime coach might be smart to take a year off before choosing a new home.

Let’s, for a moment, pretend we are a wildly successful Super Bowl–winning head coach with some gas left in the tank. We love the energy of being around a football team, the players and coming to work every day. We would like to win a second Super Bowl before we commit to life in a Jimmy Buffet village. The only problem? While still quite talented, our roster is headed into the thorns.

Cap tightness. Quarterback questions. General aging. What we’ve built has a window of potency, and that window could be closing. At the very least, it’s slightly less ajar than it was two or three years ago. On the back end of a storied coaching career, is there time to burn it all down and start anew?

Now the big reveal: We’ve been pretending to be Sean Payton.

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In thinking about this year’s head coaching cycle, Payton stands out in a fascinating way. He just turned 59 and is at the end of a great period in his coaching life without much left to prove. He has won a Super Bowl and proven he could win games without Drew Brees, routinely beating some of the best teams in football with a scattered cast of journeymen and late-round picks. It would be difficult not to see his getting a ticket punched to Canton eventually.

He is also finishing a season in which he enters the final week with a 40% chance to make the playoffs (according to FiveThirtyEight), with Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill and Ian Book having taken his team’s snaps at quarterback. Payton made the playoffs during a COVID-19-ravaged 2020 season with Hill starting four games under center. And, in ’19, he made the playoffs and went 5–0 with Teddy Bridgewater under center.

His contributions to professional football are solidified as a true quarterback whisperer. So, if we were Payton, what would we want out of a life in New Orleans right now? If he has another 10 years left in him, would he want to spend three of them rebuilding the Saints, or would he be interested in another option?

Payton hasn’t addressed this, and we’re not reporting it. We’re simply putting ourselves in someone’s shoes at an interesting decision point in their life.

After all he’s given to the city of New Orleans (a Super Bowl, an identity, a thing to look forward to on Sundays after an unimaginable tragedy), could he walk into the Saints’ front office and politely ask it to inform the Jaguars or the Bears that he’s available for a first-round pick?

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Could he retire for a hot second, enjoying the Bill Cowher life for a season, before emerging on the market in early 2023 as arguably the most sought-after professional coaching candidate in NFL history, at a time when coaching salaries are exploding like greased oil wells? Would he hang out with Peyton and Eli Manning on Monday Night Football, bolstering, like Jon Gruden so many years ago, his case to coach again with every football-savvy utterance on national television?

Looking at the list of longest-tenured coaches in the NFL, where Payton’s 2006 start date puts him in second, Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh successfully rebooted with young quarterbacks without enduring the lengthy searches we’ve seen send other organizations into tailspins. Mike Tomlin faces a search for his next franchise QB but is a decade younger than Payton. Pete Carroll seems likely to be in his last head coaching gig, adding more finality to any decision about walking away under his own volition.

But Payton would have options down the line if he wants to join The Great Resignation.

It has to be tempting, right? Payton has a tremendous staff in New Orleans and could promote his successor from within. Most of those coaches have been with him for years. Some of them are legitimate head coaching candidates in 2022. While they would obviously miss Payton, it’s hard to imagine they would struggle to piece together a stout defense and an efficient offense, regardless of who is under center. He wouldn’t be leaving them in a lurch, doomed like Lincoln Riley to have some trash-strewn highway named after him.

Payton has been through a great deal during his time in New Orleans. A break would be understandable. Free agency would be understandable. A trade would be understandable. Remarkably, his message hasn’t waned in its effectiveness. He could go out (relatively) on top, free to plot the kind of creative renaissance Andy Reid has enjoyed in Kansas City.

The veteran quarterback carousel this offseason is going to be a mess, with everyone lining up to court Russell Wilson and potentially settling for Baker Mayfield or Jimmy Garoppolo. If Payton thinks he’s at the front of the line for Wilson? Great; punch the gas pedal. If he could instead lord over the coaching market for a year or two like a proven version of Urban Meyer, waiting for the opportunity to sync up with an Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray, Caleb Williams or some other potentially transcendent passer, how much better would that be?

For some of us, breaks are good. Change is good. Being able to view our situations from new perches is good. No one should understand that better than Payton, whose year away from the league in the wake of the Bountygate scandal is now a feel-good Netflix vehicle for Kevin James. (You can read the true story of that year here, by the way.)

For Payton, the chance to see football from another viewpoint might have an effect we can’t even fathom right now. Plus, have you seen the prices at a Jimmy Buffet village? Better to let the real estate market calm down and take your time finding an NFL market that gives you the best chance at that second ring.

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