After landing his first NFL head coaching job in New Orleans in 2006, Sean Payton has lead the Saints to an overall regular season record of 87-57 with three divisional titles, five playoff appearances with a 6-4 record, and one Super Bowl title. These achievements easily make Payton the winning-est coach in Saints franchise history, and the Saints organization just rewarded him with a new five-year contract extension worth over $45million.
The first several years of Payton’s tenure were certainly a welcome change from the decades of disastrous Saints teams prior to his arrival in the Crescent City. However, over the past four years, the Saints have ranked outside the top 5 in offense and missed the playoffs altogether three times. As fellow CSC contributor Dave Cariello mentioned months ago at the season’s conclusion, these results don’t exactly warrant the $5million raise Payton is carrying around in his briefcase at the annual owners’ meeting in Boca Raton, FL.
There was plenty of speculation, in fact, at the end of this past season that both Brees and Payton would be shipped out of town as the Saints may have been contemplating hitting the reset button. Now, it is clear that both Brees and Payton’s ties to general manager Mickey Loomis, president Dennis Lauscha, and owners Tom and Gayle Benson go deeper than we ever imagined as both are expected to sign their extensions through 2020 soon. Despite all the outside noise that Payton would seek greener pastures, he viewed an extension as a mere "formality" and does not see himself coaching anywhere else. Quoting his right tackle, Payton said, "I think Zach Strief said it best last week: I’ll be here as long as they’ll have me."
It’s ironic that Payton quoted Strief in this instance because I can’t think of another player on the team who has out-stayed their welcome more; but let’s leave that dispute for another article. It has been clear, though, over the past two seasons in particular, that Payton’s offensive mind isn’t fooling anyone around the league anymore. I have never even played football and I can see that the Saints never screen pass to the left side of the field. Our complex personnel packages have become so specialized per situation that it must be easy for other teams to guess what’s coming next by simply diagnosing which players line up pre-snap.
Since the Saints seem to post top 10 offenses despite their stale system, what scares me more about Payton’s extension is his growing inability to recognize failure within his own coaching staff. It seems pretty cut and dry: if you are close friends with Payton, you will never be fired. Joe Vitt, Bill Johnson, and Greg McMahon should all be unemployed, but it looks like we are stuck with mediocre linebacker play, an ineffective pass rush, and under-performing special teams until 2020. I have never seen NFL coaches like this survive multiple regime changes with their same positions with the same team. We’ve had at least five different defensive coordinators since 2006 and not once did any of these three coaches get the ax.
One saving grace for defensive coordinator Dennis Allen this season may be that he already has the job going into the offseason. It’s been noted in the past that Payton might have dabbled more than he should in Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme. Allen did help the defense perform better down the stretch of 2015 after Ryan’s firing.
"He was real good coming in in a tough position," Payton told reporters. "I thought he was organized, detailed. I think there are a few pieces that we have to help him with that can help our team and I think being in charge of it for the offseason (will help)." Hallelujah! Is Payton saying he’s actually going to let Allen shop for his groceries this year like Ryan may have prior to our stellar 2013 season? This could just be a smokescreen. Maybe Payton plans on holding the reins while letting his fifth defensive coordinator take the blame for yet another year of putrid Saints defense while his other buddies on the coaching staff sit pretty in a steaming pile of mediocrity.
Now that I’ve depressed you, let’s look at this for what it is. It’s a pledge of allegiance from the Saints organization to both Payton and Brees. Without this extension, Brees probably won't sign his. These two are as close as a coach and player can become. And Brees’ shady business deals aside, he remains the Saints best overall player and cornerstone to build a team around for the next few years.
One thing this signing means is stability. "Another five years means a lot," Payton said, per NOLA.com’s Larry Holder. "That stability, I don’t take for granted." Payton isn’t stupid. He sees that he can be the highest paid NFL coach while also retaining possibly the most power of any coach to boot. He has a fabulous working relationship with our starting QB, owner, president, and general manager. Stability is of course a very valued commodity, but when the franchise’s owner is embroiled in a legal battle involving the ownership rights of said franchise, Payton could be claiming his stake in very shaky ground.
But for now, assuming Brees’ deal gets done soon, the Saints will be one of the more stable franchises in recent NFL memory. Our offense may be painfully predictable and our defense may be perfectly rotten, but we will be stable! And today, stability trumps all.