Just a few weeks ago in these pages of Lagniappe I wrote a column on the season that was for the New Orleans Saints and what their priorities would be for the upcoming off-season.
It was sadly ironic that I explained that the team’s top off-season chore was to ensure that head coach Sean Payton was happy and secure in his extended contract worth more than $13 million per year. I noted that the Saints might want to keep an eye and ear out for poachers like Jerry Jones in Dallas, or the Mara family with the New York Giants or the Halas clan in Chicago — all of whom are seeking new head coaches and might look Payton’s way.
While I was preaching about circling the wagons around Payton, I never considered that he was about to announce that he was packing up and stepping down as the Saints’ head coach.
What was easily the worst day in Who Dat nation came one year ago when Drew Brees retired, marking a day of mourning in Louisiana.
A mere one season later, the retirement of Payton logged in as the second most dreaded day in Saints history. Payton explained it was time to move on, spend more time with his family and get his house and health in order.
They were 16 mostly glorious years, with seven divisional titles, nine playoff appearances, a franchise record 161 wins against 97 losses, and, of course, that hell freezes over and pigs do fly Super Bowl championship.
Payton, with those pursed lips and pulled down visor, is unequivocally the Saints’ best and most beloved head coach ever.
No doubt the victories and championship will support that claim. Remember Payton got the Saints to the NFC Championship game in his first season back in 2006 after the rampage and destruction of Hurricane Katrina in ‘05. But it was more than just those 10 winning seasons.
Payton brought the Saints credibility, respect, and, most of all, hope.
“If it were not for hopes, the heart would break,” goes one saying. And yes, the team and its legion of fans have endured many broken hearts since 1966.
But Payton and his devious and inventive offensive schemes lifted the Saints to elite status in a very short period. Of course, Brees, the future first ballot Hall of Famer and the most adored Saints player ever, had much to do with Payton and the team’s ascension.
They had a more symbiotic coach/quarterback connection than, say, Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, or Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning, or even Bill Bilichick and the GOAT Tom Brady with their six Super Bowl titles.
We just couldn’t imagine a Saints team without Payton and Brees.
But nothing lasts forever (no matter how much hope you have) and it was Brees who retired first.
I figured Payton had another five to eight good years left in his tank. And he still may eventually. At his retirement press conference Payton said he wasn’t burned out on coaching and, believe it or not, enjoyed all those challenges of last season.
But clearly the year-long suspension for Bountygate in 2012, along with two hurricanes, two relocations, two bouts with Covid, navigating two years of Covid-related team restrictions, roster uncertainty, the scores of injuries in 2021. And let’s not forget the Minnesota Miracle and the infamous NOLA No Call in the NFC Championship game. All took a massive, cumulative toll on Payton emotionally and physically.
You may recall he went into a weeks-long hibernation filled with self-admitted binges on ice cream and Netflix after the NFL’s most egregious non-call on pass interference against the Rams that would have sent Payton to his second Super Bowl with one of his best teams.
If he wasn’t burned out or exhausted or frustrated then, why step aside now? “I felt the time was right for me,” Payton explained at his 90-minute open-hearted and at times emotional farewell media session. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about … Not many get to choose their terms. And I looked at it as an opportunity to see my kids more, to travel more, to get in better shape.”
I get it. I preach balance in life all the time.
But I have to wonder whether Payton would have made the same decision if Tom Brady had announced his retirement a week earlier, before Payton’s farewell.
Think about it. With Brady out of the way in Tampa Bay, the path to the NFC South title is much easier. And with that elite defense returning and a few offensive holes plugged, the Saints would be the odds on favorites to win the division again.
Brady’s own farewell after a record-setting 22-year Hall of Fame, GOAT career probably would not have affected Payton’s decision anyway. But much in life is about timing.
Payton says he has not ruled out a return to coaching at some point in the future. But right now he admitted he doesn’t know what’s next and “it kind of feels good.”
After a spring and summer of R&R, I expect to see Payton in a network TV gig come fall. He will follow Brees into retirement for now, and, like Brees, go in front of the television cameras.
After that has run its course, Payton will probably end up as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys at some point.
Don’t be fooled about Jerry Jones’ one-year pledge to current Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. If Jones has to wait one year for Payton to clear his head, so be it. He was close to hiring Payton back in 2019, and will succeed this time around when the stars are better aligned.
I’m not trying to douse Payton’s farewell parade with the what if’s and woulda, coulda, shouldas. But I have to ask, was one Super Bowl appearance enough when Payton had the Hall of Famer Brees in his prime, a bevy of offensive stars and more than a few stellar defenses?
We all knew the window of time to exploit the brilliance of Brees was closing with each passing season. I know you can say the same for the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rogers. But two losses in NFC Championship games, four divisional round defeats and those three straight 7-9 seasons from 2014 through 2016 sure seemed like missed opportunities for, at the very least, two more Super Bowl berths.
Four straight playoff losses between 2017 and 2020 will weigh on Payton but not tarnish his legacy — mostly because of how three of those defeats ended.
It’s still painful to dig up, but there was the whiffed tackle that was the Minneapolis Miracle in 2017.
There was the botched no call on the pass interference play against the Rams in 2018.
And there was the other no call on an obvious offensive pass interference on the Vikings in overtime in 2019.
That’s three straight gut-punch, suck-the-air-out-of-your-entire-body kind of losses.
Could Payton and the Saints have done things differently and better to avoid those late-game situations for three straight years? Of course. But games are often won and lost on one play at the end.
For all three to go against Payton and the Saints in those high stakes games is just … well, unthinkable.
What team GM Mickey Loomis and owner Gayle Benson are thinking about now is who will succeed Payton as their new head coach.
The Saints’ interview process was just completed in the midst of former Dolphins’ head coach Brian Flores’ headline-making federal class action lawsuit against the NFL for racism and biased head coaching hiring practices. The suit specifically names the Broncos, Giants and Dolphins as culprits.
Flores, who is black and has gone unhired after his surprising firing from Miami, reportedly interviewed with Loomis before filing the lawsuit. The Saints have also met with former Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, who has since been named the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit defensive coordinator and former Saints defensive back Aaron Glenn, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and current New Orleans defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who appears to be the front runner for the Saints job.
This is the right time for Payton to ride off in the sunset. But it’s the worst possible time for the Saints.
The team has a lengthy list of problems and challenges that fall into Payton’s wheelhouse: figuring out the still unsettled quarterback position; rebuilding the left side of the offensive line; what to do with star receiver Michael Thomas, who has not played in two years; and, of course, finding a true No. 1, 2 and 3 receiver. And as always, the team needs help solving its conundrum of being $74 million over the salary cap.
But those are not Payton’s problems any longer.
He has done his time, and given the Saints, the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana a piece of his heart and soul — and most of all, the ability to hope.
Enjoy all the ice cream you crave now, coach. It was a sweet ride.
Catch Rick Sarro’s sports commentary 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.