How It All Began
It all began three years ago, when Peter King said on a video on his website, the MMQB.com, that he expected Sean Payton to leave after a dismal start to the 2014 season. At the time, the New Orleans Saints were 5-8, and King’s logic was that, like his mentor, Payton would get out before things got too bad. Coach’s response, as with most questions and rumors posed towards him, was candid and raw: "Consider the Source".
The realism of that response did not temper the idealism of the NFL media, who have continued to push this narrative each year following Mr. King’s video. Payton coined a phrase that has helped shape and define the feelings most fans have when see this type of rumors surface. They are "Sunday Splash Reports".
Now, I’m not saying the possibility of Payton leaving isn’t there. The NFL is a business. If a deal were presented to New Orleans where the return outweighed the cost, I’m positive general manager Mickey Loomis and company would at least consider it. The reality is that losing Coach Payton is more likely to cause the collapse of the Saints hopes and standings than the rise.
This possibility, however small, does warrant exploring. Contract details for Coach Payton will put up the first potential road blocks for any team. In March 2016, the Saints extended Payton’s contract through 2020 to the tune of $45 million over the next five years. While there are other NFL coaches making their own fair share with a half dozen making $7 million for more, I can’t imagine it’s something every franchise in the NFL is willing to pay for.
That being said, there is precedent for head coaches being traded from one franchise to another. Herm Edwards was allowed out of his contract with the New York Jets in 2006 so that he could become the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Jets received a 4th round pick as compensation, but it should be noted that Edwards was not a Super Bowl winning head coach and rarely took his team to the playoffs. Edwards had a 42% winning percentage as a head coach.
During the offseason following their 2001 campaign, the Oakland Raiders allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to secure the services of Jon Gruden. This trade produced immediate results as Gruden took the Bucs to the Super Bowl in 2002 and were victorious (beating the Raiders). The trade was costly, however, as the Bucs gave Oakland two first round draft picks, two second round draft picks and cash. At the time, Gruden had yet to win a Super Bowl. (He was however coming off two very strong Oakland campaigns that saw them go 12-4 and 10-6 and reached the AFC championship game). Gruden had a 54% winning percentage as a head coach.
Finally, as our last example, we’ll use Bill Parcells and his stint with the Jets in the late 90s. Parcells was the head coach of the New England Patriots at the time the Jets attempted to hire him. After an initial deal would be rejected by then commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the Patriots would ultimately receive four separate picks, a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounder, from the Jets over the span of three NFL Drafts. Parcells had won two Super Bowls and he ended his career with a 57% winning percentage as a head coach.
While there are not a lot of head coaching trades that take place, we can infer Payton’s value by comparing his career to the coaches above. Like Gruden and Parcells, I would expect Payton to command multiple draft picks in any trade. Many Saints fans might feel his recent performances year to year (three straight seasons being unable to breach .500), but ultimately what matters is can a coach win it all.
Thirty-one different head coaches have hoisted a Lombardi trophy. Of those thirty-one, thirteen have gone back to win and hoist at least one more. That’s an impressive figure of 42 percent of Super Bowl winning head coaches have gone back to win another.
With there having been hundreds of head coaches in NFL history, there is a higher statistical chance your team will win a Super Bowl by hiring a previous winner, than by hiring someone who has never won. Also, for the record, Sean Payton has a career winning percentage of 59%.
What New Orleans Has Now
Now that we know a team will not only have to take on a large contract, but also likely have to offer up multiple high ranking draft picks, it’s time to take a look at what the Saints possess in Coach Payton. What makes him so valuable?
First and foremost, Payton has taken the Saints offense to statistical places it had never ventured before. In Saints history, they had never ranked 1st overall in total offense or in scoring offense. Under Payton, the Saints have been the top offense in the NFL six times (including this season). They have been the top scoring offense in the NFL twice (and second place twice, including this season).
The above graphic displays Payton’s career offensive rankings. As you can see, besides his first year as a coordinator with the New York Giants, he has not had an offense that was not in the NFL’s top 10. Even if you consider scoring as a more important margin of success, which is a good argument to have, he is still consistently a top 10 performer with New Orleans.
How is he able to do this so well, and so consistently? Payton is constantly adapting to both the players he has and the opponents he is facing. The offense we have seen rank 1st overall this season is not the same format we saw win the Super Bowl in 2009. Yet, as you can see by the above graphic the result is the same in terms of where the offense ranks in the NFL.
Nick Underhill at The Advocate wrote about this ability to adapt. In his article, Underhill states "The Saints coach is widely considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the league and has created an offense that many of his colleagues in other cities must study, but that doesn’t mean he’s above looking at what others are doing. It’s market research, staying up on new trends and ideas, is a job requirement, and he often borrows ideas and adopts them as his own."
Not only is this ability impressive, it’s actually a NFC record. New Orleans has posted eleven consecutive season of scoring 375 points or more, and only the New England Patriots have done it over a longer span (thirteen seasons).
Underhill continues, "Finding sources of inspiration is a necessary part of the game. You can only stay the same for so long in the NFL. You can have your staples, but it would be foolish not to lift passing concepts that you think would work for your team. Ignoring those things is a good way to ensure your team will quickly go stale. This is a league where you must constantly be evolving. If you aren’t doing that, someone is going to figure you out."
All That Glitters Isn’t Saints Gold
As my podcast co-host on Who Dat Confessional was quick to point out in our discussion last night, there is more to being a head coach than just producing quality play on one side of the ball or the other. There is also a just as important front office aspect that deals with managing both the coaching staff and players.
My counter argument to that point is that Payton has shown improvement in that area. When the Saints brought in Jeff Ireland, they saw an immediate upgrade in the scouting department. Due to special teams woes throughout the beginning of the season, Payton brought in Kevin O’Dea to help specifically with Wil Lutz. O’Dea is a NFL special teams vet spanning three decades.
Since O’Dea came in, we’ve seen Lutz’s kicking percentage skyrocket. In games 1-8 of the Saints season Lutz was kicking 72.2%. Since then, he is kicking a very impressive 92.9% with an obvious improvement in both the trajectory of his kicks and overall accuracy.
More moves in the positional coaching arena will need to happen before Saints fans are truly happy, but what is apparent is Coach Payton’s attempt to bring the Saints back to their winning ways. Regardless, there are obvious flaws that must be addressed before the team returns to the Super Bowl.
Finally, I think everyone must keep in mind that other coaches around the NFL have not had to endure the same hardships that New Orleans has. After going through the ordeal that led to Sean’s suspension and the Saints having all of their 2009-2011 momentum stymied there has been a rebuilding process.
This process isn’t one anyone in the front office has come out and acknowledged. Rebuilding generally is related to new coaches, new players and usually a new front office. Make no mistake, this is the process New Orleans has been in. They have shuffled defensive coordinators, players and even some of the front office to try and build a return to success.
With 2016 coming to a close, most have to feel optimistic. It isn’t just the offense that is lifting the hopes of fans. The defense has come on as of late and are really beginning to mesh together as a unit. After being bitten bad by the injury bug, the team has found players to plug in and make it work.
Over the 2nd half of the season, the defense is the 10th best in the NFL allowing 324.7 yards a game. Since Week 4, the run defense is ranked 3rd in the NFL (86.3 yards per game). If you have time after reading this article, I’d encourage you to take a look at the detailed look Mike Triplett took at the defense and it’s improvement over the course of the season.
Considering everything that has taken place, and what we have to look forward to next season, it simply doesn’t make sense for the Saints to allow Sean Payton to leave. Whether that offer was multiple picks and cash, or for a star player, the void that would be placed in the organization would leave very big shoes to fill. New Orleans should stick to Payton and ride this crazy roller-coaster to the very end.