Sean Payton survived 2021. But you can’t blame him if he had some PTSD flashbacks from Hurricane Katrina some 15 years ago.
It was 2006 when Payton became the New Orleans Saints’ head coach amid a city in near total destruction and struggling to rebuild.
Last season, exactly 16 years after Katrina hit New Orleans, Hurricane Ida forced her way through the marshes around Port Fourchon and all those Saints parishes in Southeast Louisiana with 150 mph winds.
Once again, the Saints had to evacuate the city for Dallas with less than two weeks before they were slated to open the season, hosting Green Bay.
As if relocating an entire NFL organization isn’t hard enough, Payton saw a critical home game against Aaron Rogers and the Packers moved from the home field advantage of the Superdome to Jacksonville.
Fortunately for the Saints, Mr. Rogers sleepwalked his way through the game and the Saints managed an improbable 38 to 3 trouncing of the Packers.
That was easily the high point of the season — to go along with those two wins over the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs and Tom Brady. The second win over Tampa Bay saw the Saints defense notch the first shutout of a Brady-led team in more than 15 years.
In between those highlight weeks, there were more problems, challenges and headaches than any one head coach should have to endure.
For torture’s sake, let me run down some of the pitfalls that befell Payton and the Saints.
First off, they had to figure out who was going to replace the retired future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees. Even though Payton knew that day was coming, it didn’t make it any easier.
The Saints then lost the services of star wide receiver Michael Thomas for the entire season (he had already missed 15 games in 2020) due to complications from an ankle injury and a subsequent surgery. And don’t forget about kicker Wil Lutz and his season-ending injury in training camp.
Hurricane Ida landed on the team’s doorstep to say hello.
Then came the barrage of injuries led by the season-ending knee injury to starting quarterback Jameis Winston seven games into the schedule. This was followed by injuries to every starting offensive linemen at some point in the year.
The Saints’ best offensive weapon, running back Alvin Kamara, was sidelined for four games, and his running mate reunion with Mark Ingram was cut short due to injuries as well.
Tight ends, defensive ends, safeties and linebackers were all sidelined at various points.
And let’s not forget about another COVID outbreak that sidelined upwards of 20 players and coaches, including Payton for a second time.
In all, the Saints had an NFL record 58 different starters through the season, and had four different quarterbacks under center.
There was all that, and then being forced out of the city by another Category 4 hurricane.
This could very well be Payton’s best coaching job, considering all those hurdles, despite his having one of the worst offenses in the NFL. I can’t believe I am writing this, but this Payton-led offense was dead last in passing yards and near the bottom in most major offensive categories.
What got them through in most games was one of the NFL’s best all-around defenses.
And boy were they fun to watch.
They were sacking quarterbacks (eighth in the league with 46), intercepting passes (sixth overall with 18), stopping the run like an immovable wall and protecting their endzone, and allowing an average of 19 points a game (fourth in the NFL for that top defensive stat).
I know Payton won’t get any Coach of the Year votes, so I will award him with my made up honor as the NFL’s Most Resilient Problem Solving Coach for 2021.
I challenge you to name any other head coach who lost his starting quarterback, along with his back-up (remember, Taysom Hill missed games with a concussion), his entire offensive line at various times, an All Pro receiver and field goal kicker, and had to shuffle a starting roster with 58 different players.
With all that, the Saints were still a whisper away from making the playoffs as a wildcard team.
Payton can thank the L.A. Rams for sending him home early and missing the postseason for the first time since 2016.
The Rams have a history of screwing things up for the Saints.
I don’t need to dive into the “NOLA No Call” do I?
This latest Rams slap in the fleur-de-lis was their regular season finale in which that high-priced defense couldn’t hold a 17-0 lead over the 49ers, and that equally high-dollar offense failed to steal the momentum and generate enough points to beat their division rival in overtime.
Payton did what he had to do, and that was soundly beat arch-rival Atlanta on the road despite losing another starting quarterback to injury, as Hill went down with a foot injury in the second quarter.
The Saints were depending on Payton’s Mini-Me in Sean McVay and all those Hollywood big-money stars like Donald, Stafford, Ramsey, Cupp, Beckham and Miller to beat San Francisco.
You would think the odds would somehow fall in the Rams’ favor after they lost the last six straight to the 49ers.
But no. L.A. ruined another party for the Who Dat Nation. And this time, Bill Vinovich was not around to blame.
Some of that home-for-the-playoffs blame has to fall squarely on the Saints’ shoulders.
A part of the season they will have a difficult time forgetting was that last-second defensive lapse against the Falcons at home when they lost 27-25 on a game-winning field goal with no time left.
Then there was that stinker against the dismal Giants — a 27-21 overtime loss, again in the Superdome. And they would love to have that 20-3 debacle against Miami in week 16 back. That was the game in which Payton ran out of quarterbacks due to COVID and had to call up rookie Ian Book from the practice squad to face a pretty stout Dolphins defense.
It was another home loss and the Saints’ worse offensive game in the Payton era. The bad mojo came early and often, as Book’s very first NFL pass attempt was a pick six.
I’m sure the 58-year-old Payton didn’t hole up in bed bingeing on Ben & Jerry’s and Netflix for a week as he did after that gut-wrenching loss to the Rams in the NFC championship game in 2019.
Instead, Payton may be busy dodging media calls and questions concerning the interests of any of the eight NFL teams seeking a new head coach.
After every Black Monday, when coaching heads roll across the league, Payton’s name will surface with reports and rumors about a team’s interest in luring him away from New Orleans.
Those headlines and chatter were strong enough a few years back when Jerry Jones and the Cowboys pulled every lever to get Payton to Dallas. Payton and his agent turned Jones’ flirting into a new lucrative five-year contract extension. Signed in 2019, it has him earning $45 million over nine years and runs through the 2024 season.
Saints fans may get a little nervous now that the New York Giants have fired Joe Judge and are again in the market for a new coach. The Big Blue may make another run at Payton to try to get him back in the city. Payton was the Giants’ offensive coordinator and QB coach from 1999 to 2002 under then legendary head coach and mentor Bill Parcells.
But the Giants have been through more than enough coaching changes and Payton has waved them off many times. I can’t imagine he would have any interest in entering that dysfunctional fray with the New York Giants as they embark on a major coaching, front office and roster reorg, especially at this point in his career.
The Chicago Bears might put in a call. But all indications they have eyes on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
Coaching vacancies in Houston, Jacksonville, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami and Minnesota don’t seem to be Payton’s path to another elusive Super Bowl. New Orleans, with GM Mickey Loomis at his side and a willing owner in Gayle Benson, is still Payton’s best shot at another title.
He has a strong defensive nucleus under contract and returning. He may be forced to evaluate the future of offensive linemen Terron Armstead and Andrus Peat, who can’t seem to stay healthy and available for an entire season of late.
A possible trade this off-season involving Michael Thomas may come. But can the Saints demand top value for the 28-year-old former All Pro receiver who has missed two seasons now with that ankle injury?
They are in dire need of not one but two elite wideouts, more receiver depth and at least one top flight tight end.
As it was during the last off-season, the big question is at quarterback.
Are Payton and Loomis comfortable with Winston and Hill or will they go full throttle after a proven, veteran star quarterback who may be open for a trade? Among the possibilities are Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson or Jimmy Garoppolo.
There is no chance the 39-year-old Aaron Rogers will leave Green Bay for New Orleans. The moody and mercurial Rogers has no interest in playing Tom Brady twice a year and competing in the same division with the seven-time Super Bowl GOAT.
Payton may dip into April’s draft for quarterback talent, but it’s a weak year for the position. So he may be forced back into the free agent market or count on Winston returning, recovered from his torn ACL injury incurred last Halloween.
Payton is the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL at 15 years in New Orleans, trailing only Bill Belichick’s 21 years in New England. That should count for something.
In the meantime, the Saints can take some solace in the fact that they played hard and persevered through a season of extreme highs and excruciating lows and were oh so close to the playoffs.
I wouldn’t begrudge Payton a few days on his couch with as much ice cream or beignets as his heart desires and his waist band can tolerate.
I think he deserves it.
Catch Rick Sarro’s sports com- mentary Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and Saturdays at 6:30 and 11 pm. It also airs nightly at 9 pm on SuddenLink Cable.
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