Not to shortchange him; obviously, it won’t be easy to replace one of the winningest coaches and greatest offensive minds in NFL history. But to say that Payton is leaving the Saints in a better place than when he first arrived in 2006 would be a colossal understatement.
Not only did Payton inherit a team that had won just one playoff game in 39 years, it was coming off of a 3-13 record and had just evacuated away from New Orleans for a full season because of Hurricane Katrina. Both the franchise and the city itself were facing uncertain futures.
He joked Tuesday at his news conference, where he formally announced he was stepping down, that trying to build his first coaching staff was like the scene in the movie “Jerry Maguire” in which Tom Cruise was holding a goldfish and calling out, “Who’s coming with me?”
Two months later, Payton got quarterback Drew Brees to come with him. And since then, the Saints have made nine playoff appearances, including the franchise’s only Super Bowl win in 2009. Payton’s Saints teams averaged more points and more yards than any other coach-team duo in NFL history with more than five seasons together, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
And they kept winning over the past five seasons, even when they had to reinvent themselves as Brees got older and eventually retired last year. Only the Kansas City Chiefs had a better record from 2017 to 2021 than the Saints (58-23).
When asked how he wants to be remembered, Payton said, “Someone who had passion. Someone that cared a lot. Winning’s important in that.” And he mentioned his late parents instilling the idea that you “talk all the time about leaving a place better than when you got there to begin with.”
“I think we’ve done that. And it’s not finished,” said Payton, who mentioned the Saints’ staff of proven assistant coaches and the leadership, led by general manager Mickey Loomis, as being poised to keep moving the ball forward.
“We’re not writing an obituary today.”
So who’s next?
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. are two obvious candidates if the Saints decide to try to keep as much of their current foundation together as possible.
Allen appears to be the leading contender, after he went 1-0 as the Saints’ interim head coach this season with a 9-0 defensive masterpiece at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while Payton was out with COVID-19. Allen previously served as head coach of the then-Oakland Raiders from 2012 to 2014 (although he was fired less than three years into the job with an 8-28 record). And he has helped transform the Saints' defense into the team’s strength in recent years.
Payton singled out Allen on Tuesday while explaining that he and the Saints never discussed any sort of arrangement where he might possibly come back after a one-year hiatus.
"In fairness to Dennis, who’s a great candidate in the building, or any other coach that possibly would be hired, there’s no half in in this game,” Payton said.
The Saints also could consider bringing back Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who has become a rising candidate after previously serving as New Orleans’ secondary coach from 2016 to 2020.
Or they could go in a completely different direction -- perhaps taking a chance on another young first-timer like they did with Payton.
“We’re gonna look in-house and outside,” Saints owner Gayle Benson said, “and I think we’re gonna do a great job in choosing another person that’s gonna be able to lead us the way that Sean did.”
The Saints are now a couple of weeks behind the curve as the ninth NFL team with a head-coaching vacancy this offseason. But it should instantly become one of the more attractive openings, since New Orleans is still very much in a win-now mode.
Don’t expect a rebuild
Yes, the Saints are projected to be about $70 million over the salary cap to start the offseason. And yes, they now need to identify both a coach and a starting quarterback, with Jameis Winston set to become an unrestricted free agent as he recovers from a torn ACL.
But the Saints can actually create more than $100 million in cap space without cutting a single player through their typical practice of restructuring contracts.
And they still have a ton of talent on the roster -- especially on defense -- which is why they didn’t consider rebuilding last year, either, after Brees retired and they faced even stiffer cap constraints.
The Saints nearly made the playoffs at 9-8 this season despite a barrage of major injuries and coronavirus-related issues. They set an NFL record with 58 different starters used, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, and that didn’t even include star wide receiver Michael Thomas, who missed the entire season after a setback in his recovery from ankle surgery. And knowing their aggressive history, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Saints take a big swing at a blockbuster QB trade.
Again, all of that is easier said than done. But it’s important to stress that Payton isn’t leaving because he feels like this team is on the verge of imminent collapse. He stressed multiple times Tuesday that he feels just the opposite.
What’s next for Payton?
Most likely a TV gig, though he insisted Tuesday that the reports he already has engaged in talks with TV networks are false.
“I think I’d like to do that. I think I’d be pretty good at it. ... But I have not spoken to anyone from a media outlet,” Payton said. “Every time I read something that says, ‘He’s in line for this job,’ I’ll call my agent and say, ‘Don [Yee], did you hear something?'”
Payton also stressed he does not plan to coach anywhere else in 2022. And since he is under contract with the Saints for three more years, they would have to agree to a trade if he decided he wanted to coach elsewhere.
However, Payton did not rule out a return to coaching in the future, stressing multiple times that “retirement” is not the right word for what he is doing. So you can absolutely bet on his name emerging in the coaching cycle as early as next season.
More than anything, though, Payton seemed intrigued by the idea of exploring some new chapters in his life.
“I looked at it as an opportunity to see my kids more, to travel more, to get in better shape,” said Payton, who also noted he has never tailgated before a game in his entire life.
“I don’t know what’s next,” Payton said. “And it kind of feels good.”