It’s time for another spin of the NFL hiring cycle, when washouts like Bill O’Brien get interviews with poorly-run teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and successful coaches like Sean Payton get linked to embarrassing franchises like the Chicago Bears by hardcore fans desperate for good news, or bored writers at Sports Illustrated with nothing better to do on the eve of the playoffs.
SI.com’s Conor Orr floated the idea of Payton taking a year off from football for, well, no real reason. After listing all the positives Payton’s put together in New Orleans — a strong roster with the best defense he’s ever fielded, an experienced coaching staff, a forward-thinking front office and a blank checkbook from ownership — Orr suggested Payton throw it all aside and see if he can go get traded to the Bears or Jaguars or whichever awful team drafts a quarterback highly in a year or two.
There’s no explanation for this, no genesis for the discussion, beyond speculating about the malaise that comes from sustained success in the NFL. A great example of that is New England Patriots Super Bowl appearances — Bill Belichick has made them so routine that they’ve become boring. The league’s acronym itself has drawn barbs about meaning “Not For Long” with high roster turnover each year, so when someone sticks around for as long as Payton has outsiders start getting antsy. No active head coach has held his post longer than Payton (since 2006) except for Belichick himself (since 2000).
But others are close. Why aren’t these questions being posed about Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who is in the exact same spot as Payton without Drew Brees upon Ben Roethlisberger’s long-awaited retirement? Because he’s younger? Or because the Steelers are an established national brand, unlike New Orleans, and wouldn’t it better for Payton to be somewhere else and the Saints to be a bottomfeeder again?
That’s something you’re more likely to hear from content-obsessed NBA fans, who have been Photoshopping Zion Williamson in a New York Knicks jersey since the day he turned pro, or have been haranguing the Pelicans on Twitter for not moving to Seattle already. Impatience and instant gratification are all the rage these days, and it’s so much more fun to speculate about Payton in the big Chicago market with Justin Fields and a bad supporting cast than it is to wait and see which upgrades he wants to add to a playoffs-ready roster in New Orleans.
I’m drawing a lot of attention to Bears fans because they’ve been the most earnestly annoying about it on social media: drawing dubious links like Payton attending high school in the Chicago suburbs and playing collegiately three hours south of the city, before he got into a couple of games as a scab player during the 1987 strike. That’s a lot of sentimentality projected on him after 35 years away from the Windy City.
One angle to consider amid all of this speculation is Payton’s contract status. He last signed an extension in Sept. 2019 (the same day Brees was injured against the Los Angeles Rams, ironically) that put him under contract through 2026. That preceded the fourth year of his previous deal. We’re coming up on the fourth year again in 2022, so maybe Payton’s agent is disseminating some rumors here or there to drum up outside interest and spur another fat extension from New Orleans. That’s exactly what his camp did last time when the Dallas Cowboys were eyeing him as their potential Jason Garrett replacement.
Information in line with this is certainly out there. Orr’s peer at SI.com Albert Breer added a nugget in his weekly column that broadcasting networks could go after Payton in the offseason just as they did Brees when he retired. He did couch that by saying it’s not expected to happen any time soon, but interestingly posited an organizational shuffle post-Payton that could see Dennis Allen take over as head coach and personnel executive Jeff Ireland assume general manager duties, with Mickey Loomis moving into a more administrative role.
That’s not impossible to imagine. But let’s focus on what’s in front of us. Payton’s taken a Saints team ravaged by injuries, COVID-19 issues, a month-long hurricane evacuation, and an offseason of unprecedented salary cap challenges to a .500 record. They’re a win away from ending this wild year with a winning record and possibly reaching the playoffs. If more things go their way in 2022 and Payton is able to recruit one of the several veteran quarterbacks expected to be available, they should be seen as legitimate Super Bowl contenders next season.
It just doesn’t make any sense for him to bow out at this point. It’s not like the inevitable breakup between Andy Reid and the Philadelphia Eagles, or Mike McCarthy and the Green Bay Packers. Payton’s built a Saints team that is talented and resilient and ready to compete for a long time. With the playoffs so near at hand, let’s save what-if discussion like this for the offseason, and maybe pick better targets.