The New Orleans Saints have to make one of the most important decisions they have had to make in a very long time, this week. Do they allow Sean Payton to leave for another franchise? What compensation to they attempt to recoup from another franchise for him? Do they insist he finishes out his contract? Would it be in the team's best interest to make him do so if he is no longer emotionally invested with the team?
This is a crucial time for both the Saints and for Payton. Payton has much to consider in the next few days, and the immediate future of the Saints hangs in the balance. Although there are a myriad of factors that go into why a coach who has options choses his destination, I have distilled it down to a more common ten factors and plugged them into Sean Payton's current situation.
Money shouldn't be much of an issue, considering the fact that Sean Payton is the highest-paid head coach in the NFL, at $8 million-per-year. Also considering the Saints have just completed their second consecutive 7-9 season, the salary appears quite generous. Even if Jerry Jones dumps his current regime to throw all of the money he can flaunt at Payton, the fact remains that he still is the highest paid coach here and now.
Even on the back end of his career, Payton will be hard pressed to find a better quarterback to coach than future Hall of Famer and current record-breaker Drew Brees. If a coach is looking to land in a place where quarterback isn't a black hole of uncertainty, New Orleans is still a great place. The one question that remains is Brees' contract situation.
As far as what's available in open destinations for Payton, there's Gabbert in San Francisco, Bradford in Philadelphia, or Tannehill in Miami. The only reasonable options are Eli in New York or potentially Romo in Dallas, even with that, the downgrades from Brees are so severe and drastic that in most cases it's laughable. Remember, before lucking into Brees, Payton coached QB's like the Detmer bros, Kerry Collins, Quincy Carter, and late era Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe. Casually walk away from Brees at your own peril.
Mickey Loomis may be the Saints General Manager, but Sean Payton presumably has as much control in personnel decisions as any head coach (which may be a problem in and of itself). Tom Benson may own the franchise, but Sean Payton owns Airline Drive, and everything that comes in and out of that facility. Even when he was exiled by the league in 2012, there was a massive banner featuring Payton's scowling, pursed face, with the words DO YOUR JOB emblazoned upon it.
Payton may be positioning himself to assume even more direct control at this moment if he stays, but few, other than Bill Belichick, have thrived with so much control in an organization. The Chip Kelly situation may just make more franchises even more cautious going forward. For better or worse, Payton has had complete control in New Orleans.
Bored? Looking for a challenge? What greater challenge is there than the Saints right now? Without the incomparable Brees under center, the Saints would surely have been battling Tennessee, Cleveland, and San Diego for futility and a top-three pick this season. His own Saints represent as great a challenge as he could find in any opening in the NFL. Payton has been instrumental in creating a contender and champion, but he is also equally responsible in creating the middling monster that is the Saints today. The greatest challenge he could find is cleaning the mess that stands before him, rather than someone else's.
As was just pointed out to me, maybe Payton is just in a rut after 10 years with the Saints. It's entirely possible, despite all the pros in favor of staying in New Orleans, he may just be ready for a change of scenery and some new perspectives on familiar problems. It remains to be seen what type of challenge Payton is looking for at this stage of his career.
Payton has been firmly backed by Owner Tom Benson and General Manager Mickey Loomis since day one. The stability this franchise has had over the past decade is downright remarkable. Payton has had to make very few changes to his staff despite the consistent lack of success in specific areas. How Joe Vitt, Bill Johnson, and Greg McMahon still have jobs with the Saints is incomprehensible. Actually, scratch that, it's simple to comprehend, Payton protects them despite their inability to coach and develop talent, because they are "Payton's guys". They support him, he supports them, and Loomis and Benson support Payton's decision to keep these anchors on the payroll. Will the next franchise provide such support? If Payton is gone, so too will be Vitt, Johnson, and McMahon.
In the wake of the 2012 pay-for-performance scandal, Saints fans remained unwavering in their support for Sean Payton, in fact, the entire situation reinforced and bolstered their love for him. "Free Sean Payton" signs, t-shirts, and rallies were displayed in full force during Payton's exile of 2012. Hardcore fans may question Payton frequently, but casual fans adore him and look at him as Belichick-south, despite the team having a record of .500 and below in 5 of his 10 seasons in New Orleans (2012 included).
The overwhelming majority of fans seem to want Payton to stay in New Orleans and they will likely support him until the end. NFL fans are fickle beasts and will turn on coaches in an instant. Head Coaches are possibly more subject to "what have you done for me lately" than any position in sports, but Payton continues to find steadfast fan support despite consecutive 7-9 seasons. That type of support is rare in the NFL today.
Payton lords over the New Orleans media like a malicious tyrant. "Next question" runs neck-in-neck with his "death stare" for his most common response to local media. He keeps the locals so much in the dark that national media tends to scoop stories before the source does. That's serious power to wield. Now imagine trying to pull that act in Philly or New York City. Yeah, exactly. Payton would be back page fodder, and with his past, the headlines would be vicious. Next question/death stare.
Much has been brought up in recent days about Payton's daughter Meagan attending Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA, and his possible desire to be close to her there, by taking the San Francisco job. There's a few things though, Pepperdine is still roughly 350 miles away from Niners HQ, so it's not exactly like he could pull up to the dorm in an unmarked surveillance van and spy on any frat boys trying to hit on his little girl. In fact, why would he need to be so close anyway? Kids leave for college to get away from their folks, they don't need dad flirting with a high-profile job just to spy on them. Buzzkill.
He also has a son, Connor, who goes to high school outside of Dallas, TX. No one is leaking rumors about him urging Jerry to ditch Jason Garrett and sign him up so he can be close to his kid. Family is key for anyone looking at a big career decision, but it would be surprising if he took a job just to be within 400 miles of his grown child.
Oh, and his brother's a regular Houdini. Respect.
A big key here for Payton is where the ownership situation is heading. Payton has a out clause in his deal should owner Tom Benson cease to own the Saints. This considered, it should stand to reason that Payton is a Benson guy, and he respects the man, and frankly, he should. Benson and Payton have been very good for each other. Benson stood firmly behind Payton in the wake of the coach's 2012 suspension, even making him the highest paid coach in the NFL after the punishment had been served. Benson has also appeared to stay out of day-to-day operations, allowing Payton to have autonomy over the team without incessant meddling (see Dallas).
Benson has benefitted from Payton just as much. In the months before Payton's hiring, Benson was persona non grata in New Orleans. He had flirted with moving the team to San Antonio in the aftermath of the storm, and it seemed like he would take that moment of great pain in New Orleans to inflict a crushing blow. Instead, Benson hired Payton, which proved to be a masterstroke of genius, and Payton helped return some goodwill Benson's way. He delivered to Benson the impossible, a Lombardi trophy, and now even more improbably, a statue of Benson stands in front of the Superdome. Benson took a chance on Payton, but it would stand to reason that deep down Benson is forever grateful to Payton for his part in changing the public perception of the embattled owner.
It would be beyond surprising to see Benson in any hurry to jettison one of his greatest assets. The key is how much longer will Benson be around to covet his defiant coach.
Dream Job Scenario
Here's the X-factor, if Payton has always had his heart set on the Giants, San Francisco, or to a lesser extent, Philly or Dallas, there may not be much the Saints can do. The heart wants what the heart wants. If his career-defining "dream job" is out there and the spot is open, it's more than likely they'd want him as well, considering his offensive prowess and his Super Bowl ring. At that point you just say "so long, and thanks for all the memories".
Some jobs in the NFL are just more prestigious than others, and maybe despite all the other factors listed here, Sean Payton covets that prestige to cap his career. You can't follow in the footsteps of your mentor Parcells without following his career path of multiple teams after his championship start.
We'll know soon where this is all headed (we hope), and the answer can't get here soon enough. Whether Payton stays or leaves, the Saints need to get moving on the future, and so do the fans.