Refusing to give a ringing endorsement to coach Mike McCarthy in the wake of his team's gut-wrenching, mistake-riddled Wild Card playoff loss, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones last week admitted "I've got a lot to think about."
Now clouding those thoughts, the coach that Jones has daydreamed about the last 16 years.
Tuesday's news of Sean Payton leaving the New Orleans Saints commenced the connect-the-dots to Dallas' doorstep. Sure, McCarthy has three years left on his contract and just led the Cowboys to a 12-5 record, NFC East Championship and ...
Since 2006, Jerry has lamented Payton as the one that got away.
During a season in which Dallas' offense shattered individual and team records, Cowboys fans prematurely fretted over the seemingly inevitable departure of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Hard to blame them, considering the curious case of Payton.
In 2003-05, Payton was the hotshot offensive mind diagramming plays and inventing ways to help the Cowboys and quarterbacks such as Quincy Carter and Drew Bledsoe win 10 games and make the playoffs. Head coach Bill Parcells got the big money and the bigger media attention, but Payton drew interest from around the league as a rising, innovative, offensive genius.
In 2005, Jones stiff-armed the Oakland Raiders’ flirtation with Payton by doubling his salary to $1 million and adding “assistant head coach” to his title. But in 2006, the Saints knocked even harder at Payton’s door and Jones was forced to make a difficult decision: Stick with his 64-year-old, future Hall-of-Fame coach, or fire Parcells and promote Payton.
Hindsight assures us that Jones made the catastrophic wrong move.
Parcells quit only a year later after Tony Romo’s bobbled snap in Seattle ended the 2006 season. Payton went to New Orleans and immediately won NFL Coach of the Year, leading the Saints to the NFC Championship Game in his first season and a win in Super Bowl XLIV in his fourth.
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Since the day he left, the NFL has assumed Payton left bread crumbs on the path back to Dallas.
When he bought a house in the DFW suburb of Westlake in 2011 it seemed like an even more realistic re-romance. And after winning the Super Bowl in 2010, Payton and Jones made more national headlines when the Saints' coach pranked the the owner by stealing his favorite bottle of wine at an Indianapolis steakhouse the night before the NFL Scouting Combine and replacing it with only a "Who Dat?!" note.
Said Payton of the ploy, "Jerry is someone that has always been good to me. It was very funny."
According to reports, Payton was also close to getting the Cowboys' job in 2019.
Payton's critics will say he underachieved in New Orleans, squeezing only one Super Bowl in 14 seasons out of future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Drew Brees. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the same damnation McCarthy received upon his hiring by Jones after winning just one Super Bowl in 14 seasons with quarterbacks named Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.
But fans of the 58-year-old Payton believe he's the type of offensive guru that could take quarterback Dak Prescott to the next level. Those close to him say he'd love to become the first coach in NFL history to win Super Bowls with two different teams. They also, however, believe Payton will get lucrative offers to become a TV analyst and that his 2022 destination won't be quickly revealed because he cherishes his down time in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
In the 16 years after bolting Dallas, Payton guided the Saints to the playoffs nine times. In his post-Payton era, Jones has employed as many head coaches and he has enjoyed playoff wins: three.
The Cowboys figured all along they'd have a decision to make on Moore, their potential Payton 2.0. But suddenly Jones might have a chance to right one of his all-time wrongs - and bring back his Payton 1.0.