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How Much Longer Can Sean Payton Get a Pass?

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Sean Payton is by far the most successful head coach in New Orleans Saints franchise history. He might also have become the most comfortable and that's not a good thing.

2014 was a disaster. Will 2015 be better?
2014 was a disaster. Will 2015 be better?
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Long time ago, a smart guy with a beard said: "to whom much is given, much will be required." Is it a nice cliché? Sure. Yet, it still rings true today, in pretty much every walk of life, and today, I intend to apply every syllable of that saying to Saints head coach Sean Payton.

If you're a Saints fan, you probably know who the highest-paid coach in the National Football League is, because he is the head coach of your favorite team. Yes, Sean Payton sits atop the NFL's head-coaching salary totem pole, earning $8,000,000 a year. That's ahead of Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick, the two coaches who won the Super Bowl in 2014 and 2013. That's also ahead of John Harbaugh, who won the Super Bowl (in Payton's house) in 2012.

Yes, Payton led the Saints to the NFL's Everest in 2009, giving New Orleans memories that will live forever in the lore of the Crescent City, memories that have transcended the sports scene and weaved themselves into the very fabric of what New Orleans stands for: overcome adversity, rebuild and thrive. But those are memories and Super Bowl XLIV was nearly five and a half years ago. Since then, there have been five NFL seasons and the results for each of these years are as follow:

2010: Exit in first round of the playoffs (who doesn't remember the beast-quake? Saints fans are still trying to forget).

2011: Exit in the divisional round of the playoffs (yes, more bad memories).

2012: Blank stare, memory loss, never happened.

2013: Exit in the divisional round, coulda woulda shoulda.

2014: The very loud crash heard ‘round Poydras street.

Maybe some of you are thinking: come on man, you're being a bit unfair here; Payton can't be blamed for the shortcomings of the past five years? Well, let's take a closer look at said fiascoes:

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2010: The Hangover.

The big bad defending Super Bowl champs dealt pretty well with their Lombardi hangover, by making the playoffs as a Wild Card at 11-5. Yet, on the road against a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team that it had dismantled 34-19 in the Superdome during the regular season, the Saints' defense allowed 41 points in a 36-41 defeat in Seattle. Sure, Payton doesn't run the defensive side of the ball, but ultimately the buck stops with him. Although New Orleans' 2010 defense was one of the best of Payton's entire Saints tenure (10th ranked with a -6.3% DVOA) it didn't show up when it mattered.

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2011: The Hangover Part II.

Arguably the best Saints team of the Payton era, the 2011 version of the New Orleans Saints was an offensive juggernaut whose demise came from the fact that Payton and his staff seemingly forgot that defense was also part of the game. The Saints played video game offense: they were first in the NFL in offensive weighted-DVOA with an absurd +39.0%. They were also second in the league in rushing, with a +18.5% DVOA. On the other hand, they plummeted from 10th to 28th in total defense in the NFL with a 10.2% DVOA. That defense (or lack thereof) would come and bite them in the butt in excruciating fashion in a 32-36 loss to the 49ers in San Francisco.

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2012: Nightmare on Poydras Street.

You know what happened. Goodell went crazy yes, but Payton was the head coach. What this means is that if he knew how many Vicodin pills were being shoplifted out of the Saints' medical closet, he was supposed to know that there were a lot of other very non-kosher things going on in his locker room. He claimed he had no knowledge. The NFL needed a scapegoat and he was it. Yet, it seems that in our furor against the NFL's führer, we've completely exonerated Payton from playing a role in the abject disaster that was the 2012 season. The truth is, as a head coach in 2012, Payton had let the inmates run the asylum. Little did we know that he was going to do it again, just two short years later.

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2013: Total Recall.

During the misery of 2012, it seemed that the Saints had returned to the sad years where winning was happenstance. No one remembered what it tasted like to be good, to be feared by division rivals. And then Payton returned and the Saints went 11-5, won the NFC South and...wait, what do you mean they didn't win the division? Really? But...they were like three games up on the rest of the division at one point right? Yup, but they also lost 20-26 to the putrid Jets, lost an embarrassing 16-27 game at the Saint Louis Rams, gave away an almost sure win in the last seconds at New England and effectively let the Panthers snatch the division away after a disappointing 13-17 week 16 loss to Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. As a result, instead of having a home-playoff game and a relatively easier way to the NFC Championship game, New Orleans had to eke out a win in Philadelphia and promptly saw its Super Bowl hopes vanish the following week at Century Link Field, once again.

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2014: Crash.

The Saints were going to the Super Bowl...remember? In training camp, they were playing all kinds of quarterback games at the end of each practice at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. We couldn't wait to get the footage of the different competitions each day from the team's website. Coach Payton even participated in some of the games, everyone was loose, confident and it was a foregone conclusion: the NFC championship game was going to pit the Saints against the Seahawks at the Mercedes Benz Superdome this time. Revenge would be sweet, the Two Dat was coming.

Except, what came was a 2-4 start, and more losses worthy of the worst eras of Saints football, like that hideous 24-26 defeat to the Cleveland Browns, or that crushing 23-24 loss at Ford Field in Detroit. I'm not even going to mention that the Saints gave Mike Smith a generous going-away present by getting swept by his hapless Falcons, although I guess I just did mention it. Sigh. 2014 was a year in which Payton effectively lost the locker room early in the season and the team never recovered.

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So Um...What Are You Saying Man?

Let's recap: the five years since winning the Super Bowl haven't exactly been a complete disaster in New Orleans, let's not go overboard here. The Saints have gone 49-31 (0.613) in the regular season since 2010. They have been to the playoffs three of the five years and advanced to the divisional round twice. The problem here is that in the same time span, the two other head coaches that make up the top three in salaries in the NFL, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick have gone 50-30 and 63-17 respectively. Belichick clearly outdid both Payton and Carroll in the win-loss department, despite the fact that regular season wins can depend on many factors, such as the division you play in, your strength of schedule, etc. However, from 2010 until now, while Payton's Saints were exiting the playoffs early (twice at the hand of Carroll's Seahawks) or missing the postseason altogether, the Seahawks and the Patriots were going to two Super Bowls a piece and winning one each.

What is slightly puzzling to me is that I don't hear a whole lot of "hot seat" talk surrounding Payton, despite the fact that his five-year resume on and off-the-field since winning Super Bowl XLIV isn't exactly $8,000,000-a-year worthy, if you ask me. Chew on these next few questions: what happens if the Saints fall on their face again in 2015? Let's envision an even more intriguing scenario: how should we regard the continuation of Payton's tenure in New Orleans if the Saints do make the playoffs next season but exit early again?

Maybe the biggest question is whether Saints fans have been so satisfied with resting on the laurels of 2009 that Payton is now exempt of any real criticism? Sure, you will hear the occasional: "he throws the ball too much" or even the ironic "he probably saw something on tape" when Payton makes a head-scratching play call. But what I have yet to hear is that it might be time to make Payton feel a bit less secure about his job if the Saints continue their recent run of "barely above average play."

What I fear is that the most successful coach in the New Orleans Saints franchise history might have indeed become too comfortable. After the 2014 season debacle, Sean Payton seemed to react like a man who woke up from a long slumber just to find his home in disarray. He decided to clean house by trading a bunch of key players away. One big problem though is that while his "house" was falling apart, Payton was well awake and yet could never fix whatever ailed his team during a season in which the NFC South was won by a 7-8-1 team. Here's my suggestion: If 2015 turns out to be another so-so season for the Saints, it might be time for Saints owner Tom Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis to install a small, yet powerful space heater under their head coach's cushy and undoubtedly very expensive office chair.