If Atlanta Falcons fans were pleased to see Drew Brees retire a while back, they should be ecstatic this week.
That's because Sean Payton, despite not ruling out the possibility of a return to coaching, will no longer be the head coach of the New Orleans Saints next season. Payton announced his plans to retire on Tuesday.
While Brees' departure signals the end of an era for the Falcons-Saints rivalry, Payton leaving opens the door for the Falcons to contend more regularly in the NFC South.
The Saints made nine playoff appearances, won seven division crowns and captured the Super Bowl XLIV title in 15 seasons under Payton. The 'bountygate' scandal was the only black mark on an otherwise highly successful tenure for Payton in New Orleans.
Prior to his arrival, the Saints had five playoff appearances in 39 years. They had just one playoff win.
Payton won nine playoff games.
Atlanta and the rest of the NFC South held its own against Payton for a little while. From 2006-16, the Carolina Panthers actually led the division with four titles while the Falcons and Saints each had three.
But then the New Orleans front office rebuilt the team's defense, added an All-Pro offensive tackle and Alvin Kamara in a single draft. Although it didn't result in another championship, the Saints won the next four division titles. With those assets, particularly a defense to match his great offense, Payton turned his career into a Hall of Fame resume.
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The Saints were never going to be the same after Brees retired. At least not right away. Jameis Winston was always going to be a place-holder behind center until the organization could draft its next franchise quarterback. As it turned out, Winston started only seven games for the Saints this season anyway because of injury.
But the Saints did fairly well without Brees and even Winston, and Payton should receive a bulk of the credit. New Orleans is 17-10 in its last 27 games with a starter other than Brees at quarterback.
That includes a 3-1 mark versus the Falcons the last two seasons. Brees missed his last two opportunities to face Atlanta in 2020, and then Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill started versus the Falcons during 2021.
In three starts against the Falcons, Hill is 3-0 with a 75.36% completion percentage, 8.3 yards per attempt average, three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Sure, Hill has owned the Falcons, but it was under the direction of Payton.
Payton went 3-1 against Atlanta without Brees. Meanwhile, Brees posted a 1-2 mark versus the Falcons without Payton (including a loss as the then San Diego Chargers starting quarterback in 2004).
Next season, the Saints are going to have more problems than just not having Brees in his prime. According to Spotrac, New Orleans' 2022 payroll is projected to be more than $71 million over the salary cap, which gives them the worst cap situation in the league. That fact was probably a factor in Payton's decision to step away.
Either way, it's better for the Falcons not to have to play Payton twice per season. His .700 career win percentage against Atlanta is even better than his .631 overall win percentage, which ranks behind only Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Andy Reid among active NFL head coaches with at least 100 games coached.