NFLTR Review: Sean Payton’s Surprise Hiatus Will Have Long-Lasting Ripple Effects

Sean Payton shocked the NFL world by stepping away this week. In this issue, we dive into that and much more:

  • What’s next for the Saints?
  • Is Dallas Payton’s inevitable destination?
  • AFC QBs vs NFC QBs

The Big Picture: Sean Payton’s “Retirement”

The news that Saints HC Sean Payton would be stepping away from the job wasn’t entirely unforeseen. There had been whispers and nudges toward the idea of something brewing with Payton for weeks, and the noise crescendoed on Sunday and Monday before Tuesday’s bombshell announcement. 

It was still jarring to see one of the best coaches in the league the past 16 years leave, though. And the impacts are going to be absolutely massive, not just in 2022, but for years to come. 

It would be hard to overstate what Payton means to the Saints organization. When he arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the franchise and the region were at a low point following Hurricane Katrina. When he led them to a win in the divisional round that year against the Eagles, it was just the team’s second playoff win since its inception in 1967. The Saints had seven winning seasons in their entire history before Payton. He just wrapped up his 10th. 

Consider that, even without future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees, the Saints were still tied for the most primetime games of any team this year with five. Payton helped turn New Orleans into a top-tier, relevant franchise. He leaves them in far, far better shape than when he arrived, which he acknowledged Tuesday is just about as much as he could have hoped for his legacy. 

But teams don’t just bounce back in a snap from losing a Hall of Fame quarterback and coach in back-to-back offseasons. This decision will have wide-ranging and long-lasting ripple effects on the Saints and around the league. 

What is the Saint’s identity now? 

For years and years, the Saints have been one of the most aggressive front offices in football. “The Saints are in cap hell” is one of the NFL’s longest-running jokes at this point but in reality they’ve had an innovative front office that’s been willing to push the boundaries of conventional cap management wisdom in order to help Payton carry out his vision for the team. 

Does that change now? It’s impossible to discount the impact having Payton and Brees in the fold had on New Orleans’ willingness to push boundaries to ensure they could be as competitive as possible every year. I doubt the organization pulls a 180 or anything, that type of aggressiveness is in their DNA at this point, but it can’t help but have an impact on some of the decisions that are coming up as they once again clear a mountain of cap space. 

Do they decide to bite a couple of bullets they might not otherwise have? There’s been some speculation about WR Michael Thomas given his injury and his conflicts with teammates, but are the Saints more willing to trade their former No. 1 receiver if they’re starting over on offense? Do they allow older LT Terron Armstead to walk and focus more efforts on re-signing S Marcus Williams? Are they willing to trade veterans like DE Cameron Jordan or LB Demario Davis to try and accumulate draft capital? We’ll find out in the coming months. 

And of course, there’s the quarterback quandary.  It speaks to Payton’s abilities as a coach that he was able to scotch-tape a competitive team together with the revolving door he had at the position this year. The two signal callers on the roster for next season are Taysom Hill and 2021 fourth-round QB Ian Book, both of whom were Payton pet projects to various degrees. There’s Jameis Winston, but a big reason he signed with the Saints was to study under Brees and Payton. Is he more amenable to options elsewhere? Do the Saints still believe they can coach him up without Payton’s tutelage? 

Payton’s absence will also dramatically impact their other options. It’s hard to see big-name quarterbacks like Russell Wilson seeing the Saints in the same way without the benefit of Payton’s reputation as an offensive mastermind. There’s the draft, but that’s a crapshoot in many ways, particularly this year it seems. A rookie doesn’t even have the advantage of being coached up by Payton. 

That said, it does seem like the Saints’ coaching staff is going to look very similar in a lot of ways next season. Saints DC Dennis Allen, who filled in when Payton was knocked out with COVID-19 earlier this season, is seen as a top candidate to be promoted, though the team will go through a full search to satisfy the Rooney Rule. Saints OC Pete Carmichael, who’s been on staff the entirety of Payton’s tenure, would also seem like a candidate to assume full-time play-calling duties. Even though New Orleans has had a prolific offense virtually the entire time under Payton, Carmichael’s name has seldom come up for coaching vacancies elsewhere. That makes him a bit of a wildcard, at least to the outside world.

If Allen does take over, given the makeup of the roster, the Saints will probably lean on being a grind-it-out, defensive team in 2022. In a lot of ways, that’s what they had to be this past season. But it’s still a potentially dramatic departure from what they’ve looked like for most of the past 15 years under Payton. 

What’s next for Payton? 

For years after former Steelers HC Bill Cowher surprisingly retired before his 50th birthday, he was a hot name annually in the coaching cycle. Expect the same for Payton, who was always being connected to other jobs even while he was with the Saints. Especially the Cowboys. 

Payton was the offensive coordinator in Dallas before being hired by the Saints and there’s always been a sense the Cowboys have regretted letting him go. There’s a particularly spicy report from this past week claiming Dallas had worked out a trade for Payton as recently as early 2019. Don’t expect the Cowboys rumors to go away anytime soon, particularly with how HC Mike McCarthy and company ended this past season. 

The expectations are always high in Dallas but Payton’s shadow looming over this coming season isn’t going to make things easier on McCarthy. Just winning a playoff game or getting to the NFC championship might not be enough. To stave off Payton, McCarthy might have to win a Super Bowl next year. 

No pressure…

That said, perhaps Payton to Dallas in 2023 is one of those things that’s too obvious to just play out that simply. I don’t think Payton is done coaching. But while listening to his press conference on Tuesday, I was struck with the thought that perhaps he ends up liking broadcast work more than maybe some people expect. I wouldn’t assume he’ll be back coaching by 2023, though I do think he returns to the NFL eventually. 

I do think if he comes back, it’s somewhere besides New Orleans. The team and Payton treated this week like a goodbye, and for good reason. Payton talked up Allen as a candidate and said essentially it wouldn’t be fair to be looming over his shoulder. There needed to be some finality when he walked out. 

“I think that there’s no half in this game,” he said on Tuesday. “You’re jumping in the deep end, and you’re swimming in. If you elect to stay out, then that’s fine. But I think that yeah, I think that that’s the approach that I think has to be taken.”

If Allen or somebody else has two or three seasons as head coach without any success and Payton still hasn’t returned to coaching, sure, coming back to the Saints could be a possibility. But let’s go back to that explosive report about the trade that fell through. 

One of the tidbits that caught my eye is that Payton is “keenly aware” no NFL coach has ever won a Super Bowl with two different teams. It makes perfect sense the uber-competitive Payton would keep track of stuff like this. On Tuesday, he told a story about Steelers HC Mike Tomlin becoming the fourth-fastest coach to reach 150 wins earlier this season, and beating him to the mark by three weeks. 

“I call him and I said, ‘Look, I got to the gas station and they told me you were already here,’” he said. “And it drove me crazy.”

Payton sounds exactly like someone who’s going to be driven to come back and chase a ring with another team. More than anything else, that’s what makes this feel like a permanent goodbye to the Saints. 

What other ripple effects will this have? 

Again, Payton to Dallas is absurdly obvious, but it really does fit in a lot of ways. Dallas has somewhat quietly become one of the best front offices in football at talent evaluation and acquisition, regardless of owner Jerry Jones’ reputation as a meddlesome armchair GM. However, the Cowboys haven’t been able to shake the issue of underachieving, as the divisional-round loss to the 49ers painfully exposed. 

Adding Payton could be the cure. This past season was a great example of Payton’s ability to coach up a team to be greater than the sum of its parts, as between injuries and QB instability the 2021 Saints had no business being 9-8. Allowing Payton to partner with a quarterback like Dak Prescott could be huge for both men and for the Cowboys franchise. If there’s even a chance of that happening, Jones would sell his soul in a heartbeat. 

This brings us to the next ripple effect. Payton is still under contract with the Saints, meaning that if/when he returns to the NFL, an arrangement will have to be worked out. The last time this happened, the Cardinals and Buccaneers swapped late-round picks to allow Bruce Arians to come to Tampa Bay. But other coach trades in the past have involved first-round picks, and I would expect the Saints to be able to get an additional first, perhaps more, in exchange for Payton. If they’re still looking for a quarterback, that could come in handy. 

Payton’s departure also leaves a big void in the NFC South. And that power vacuum could grow exponentially if Buccaneers QB Tom Brady also decides it’s time to retire. Tampa Bay would be reeling to try and find a quarterback, with a soon-to-be 70 Arians probably nearing retirement. The Falcons also have an aging quarterback and cap issues. The Panthers have no quarterback and a coach who will enter next season on the hot seat. 

It’s not a stretch to say the NFC South would instantly become the worst division in football, for 2022 at least. That at least should be some comfort to the Saints. They won’t be nearly as far behind the rest of the division, if they’re behind at all once Brady hangs it up. 

This Week In Football

  • This has been one of the slowest moving coaching cycles in recent memory…so far. Things heated up in a big way this past week, so let’s dive in. 
    • Teams tend to want to hire general managers and get those in place before moving on to finalizing a head coach. There were four vacancies and three of those teams made hires by early this week. The Giants hired Joe Schoen from the Bills, the Bears hired Ryan Poles from the Chiefs and the Vikings hired Kwesi Adofo-Mensah from the Browns. The Raiders are the only team that hasn’t hired a GM yet and it’s possible they’re going with more of a coach-centric model (more on that in a second). 
    • With those hires in place, the coaching dominoes have started to fall. The way this tends to work is one move sets off a chain reaction as teams move to make sure their favorite candidate isn’t hired by someone else. The Jaguars made that first move, though perhaps not in the way they intended. There was buzz all weekend and into the early part of the week about Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich being the favorite for Jacksonville. On Wednesday, there were even reports that a deal was being finalized. But those were quickly refuted by Adam Schefter and others, who said the Jaguars were still deciding between other candidates, including Colts DC Matt Eberflus and Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett
    • Well on Thursday, Hackett and Eberflus were taken off the market in rapid succession. Hackett was hired by the Broncos, which of course will touch off tons of speculation that’s already in full swing about a certain Green Bay quarterback who could be available. The Bears hired Eberflus, who apparently impressed Poles in addition to the search committee that had already started the coaching search. 
    • So where does that leave Jacksonville? There was some thought their interest was a contractual leverage play, but there are indications the presence of GM Trent Baalke is an issue for Leftwich, who wants to bring in his own GM. Add in the surprise interview on Monday of former Broncos HC Vic Fangio, who worked with Baalke with the 49ers and was rumored to be part of a package deal with Alabama OC Bill O’Brien that Baalke was pushing earlier this offseason, and once again it reeks of dysfunction in Jacksonville. 
    • Meanwhile, it was a mild surprise to see Cowboys DC Dan Quinn not get the job in Denver after he’d been reported as the favorite by multiple sources. It’s a good reminder things aren’t always what they seem this time of year. Quinn took a selective outlook this cycle, and with jobs in Denver and Chicago off the board, it appears he will be staying in Dallas. It’s a coup for the Cowboys, who were also fearful of losing both coordinators, though OC Kellen Moore is still a finalist for the Dolphins’ vacancy. 
    • It’s been a tough week for local news reporters. A Saints columnist wrote a piece telling fans to relax about Payton just a day before he retired. The same reporter who broke both the Antonio Brown fake vaccine card and Urban Meyer kicking Josh Lambo stories got caught up in whatever the hell is going on in Jacksonville when he tweeted the Jaguars were finalizing a deal with Leftwich. And Vic Tafur, the Raiders beat reporter for the Athletic who is as much an authority on the team as anyone on the beat, got egg on his face less than 24 hours after saying Patriots OC Josh McDaniels was no longer the favorite for the Raiders’ HC vacancy when an official interview request went out to McDaniels. A chorus of national reporters followed that news by strongly suggesting McDaniels would not have accepted that interview and the Raiders would not have sent it unless both sides knew there was mutual interest. I don’t point this out to question Tafur’s authority, just to illustrate that sometimes people get caught in the crossfire when agents and NFL executives have agendas. 
    • As far as the other teams, the Giants should have a new head coach by the weekend. Their final interview is Friday with Bills DC Leslie Frazier. That will impact the Dolphins who have second interviews scheduled for early next week. The Saints are kicking off their process which is expected to end with DC Dennis Allen taking over, but they created an interesting wrinkle when they requested an interview with Leftwich. Jacksonville might have competition if he’s indeed their guy. The Vikings have been keeping things close to the vest but that should kick into gear with the new GM in place. And who knows what the Texans are doing. 
    • The coordinator market will really heat up in a week or so when head coaches are in place, but there was some additional movement, including the unexpected parting of ways between the Ravens and DC Don Martindale. Though the Ravens consistently have one of the league’s better defensive units from year to year, there were inconsistencies that HC John Harbaugh apparently felt he couldn’t just chalk up to injury. Baltimore didn’t want to give Martindale an extension with one year remaining on his deal and the two sides apparently decided a fresh start was best. Martindale should be in high demand. The Ravens meanwhile stayed in the family to replace him, tabbing Michigan DC Mike MacDonald who finished up his first year in the role after leaving Baltimore in 2020. 
    • Elsewhere, Steelers DC Keith Butler retired after 23 seasons. Pittsburgh has strong internal options to replace him, including assistant HC Teryl Austin, and HC Mike Tomlin calls a fair amount of the plays anyway. But they are also looking outside, including with Giants DC Patrick Graham. The Panthers meanwhile filled their two biggest vacancies on the staff, hiring former Giants HC Ben McAdoo as their offensive coordinator and Bears ST coordinator Chris Tabor in the same role. Considering that HC Matt Rhule and his entire staff are entering a potential lame-duck year, those hires are solid given the circumstances. 
  • The coaching cycle craziness has tamped down what is a massive story. For years and years, even as he aged, there was always little doubt Tom Brady was coming back to play. And that’s mostly due to Brady himself. He’s had a goal of playing until he was 45 for years now, and that would have been this coming season. Brady’s never given off any serious doubt about whether he’s coming back for the next season — until now. Tampa Bay’s season ended earlier than anyone expected in the divisional round to the Rams as a furious comeback from a 27-3 deficit fell short. And listening to what he’s said after the game and in the past few days, it’s clear the missed family time is starting to weigh on Brady. We probably won’t know one way or another as Brady takes time to decompress and figure out what’s next. But retirement looks like it might be a real possibility for the first time. 
  • We should also expect some kind of update on the Packers and QB Aaron Rodgers in February. The two sides appear to have put their conflict from last year behind them. But Rodgers said one key thing after Green Bay was once again unceremoniously kicked out of the playoffs  by the 49ers: “I don’t want to be a part of a rebuild.” What we can deduce from this is Rodgers wants to sit down with the team and discuss their plan for this offseason. What are they going to do to keep WR Davante Adams? How will they address their cap deficit and address other needs at the same time? What is their vision for the future and Jordan Love? In my opinion, if the front office and Rodgers are on the same page, he’ll be back. If not, hold on to your butts. It’ll be a great time to be in the trade rumor business. 
  • In other high-profile quarterback trade news, we already know the Texans want to rid themselves of the hot potato that is QB Deshaun Watson. February could bring some more clarity on the legal side with 20+ allegations of sexual misconduct. But when Houston takes bids, one of them won’t be coming from the Giants. Owner John Mara firmly and decisively ruled out a trade for Watson when asked (take notes; this is how teams dispel trade rumors, if they really want to). That means, for 2022 at least, the Giants are full speed ahead with former No. 6 overall pick Daniel Jones at quarterback. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

The past week and this coming weekend have put on display just how much of a heavyweight bout the AFC is going to be for the foreseeable future. The quarterback talent in that conference is just ridiculous. Compare it side by side with the NFC…

AFC NFC
Patrick Mahomes Dak Prescott
Josh Allen Russell Wilson
Justin Herbert Tom Brady
Joe Burrow Aaron Rodgers
Lamar Jackson Matthew Stafford
Derek Carr Kyler Murray
Ryan Tannehill Kirk Cousins
Carson Wentz Matt Ryan
Mac Jones Jimmy Garoppolo
Baker Mayfield Jalen Hurts
Tua Tagovailoa Justin Fields
Trevor Lawrence Jared Goff
Zach Wilson Jameis Winston
Teddy Bridgewater Taylor Heinicke
Davis Mills Daniel Jones
Mason Rudolph Sam Darnold

Loosely sorting these guys makes it pretty clear the AFC has a huge leg up right now…

Burrow doesn’t have the biggest arm and isn’t crazy mobile. But something he does better than just about any quarterback right now, and better than any QB I’ve seen in a while, is remain cool in the face of pressure. Most quarterbacks get rattled and start to feel the rush before it gets there. Even great ones like Brady can get sped up. Not Burrow. He got pounded this year and pounded in the divisional round against the Titans, yet he hung in and made the plays they needed to win. Cincinnati shouldn’t use this as an excuse not to build up his offensive line, but the formula most defensive coordinators use against a great quarterback is to get pressure with four and drop the rest in coverage. It’s a heck of a trump card for the Bengals to have a quarterback who’s immune to pressure…

I think it’s pretty clear the current overtime rules are falling short in the playoffs. The game is too weighted toward the offensive side of the ball right now. The NFL needs to realize that…

When the Saints drafted Ian Book, Sean Payton said it was because he reminded him of himself when he played. Payton appeared in three games for the Bears in 1987 as a replacement player during the strike. He completed 8-23 passes for no touchdowns, a pick and 79 yards while being sacked seven times…

In Book’s lone start, he completed 12-20 passes for 135 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions and took eight sacks. Pretty spot-on comparison…

If you read this same space last week, you know I’m a fan of the Vikings’ new GM. This is an encouraging sound byte…

Terrific piece from the Ringer’s Benjamin Solak on the rivalry between 49ers HC Kyle Shanahan and Rams HC Sean McVay, who evolved from the same coaching tree and now feature similar but different offenses that have dominated the NFC. Including this year, either Shanahan or McVay will have been the play-caller for four of the past six Super Bowls…

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