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Sean Payton the Fifth-Best Coach in the NFL? Ask Me in 2017

As we published a couple of days ago, USA Today ranked all 32 National Football League head coaches and to my surprise, Sean Payton was fifth on their list. What am I missing?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Two days ago, our own Dave "Don" Cariello asked the following question after hearing of USA Today's ranking of all 32 current NFL head coaches, in which the publication had Saints Sean Payton as the fifth head coach in the league:

"What do you guys think? Notice there is no mention of defense when it comes to Payton's credentials. Should that hurt his ranking?"

My answer is unequivocally yes, and I'll go even further.

But first, please let me refresh your memory as to what was USA Today's argument for ranking Sean Payton as the fifth-best head coach in the entire NFL:

"There’s no offensive coach in the NFL better at creating favorable match-ups than Payton. That’s how the Saints offense remains in the top-half of the league without elite talent at the receiver position. While most other quarterbacks see their production fall off when their top targets go down, Drew Brees just keeps putting up 4,000-yard seasons."

So now, let's examine this statement and the many reasons why I think that Payton is being vastly overrated by USA Today.

  • The Saints Offense is Great. Oh...great. The statement examination took about a minute. Wait, was this the description of some NFL offensive coordinator? I thought the list was about head coaches, you know, guys who lead the entire team, not just one side of the ball. And who cares about Brees putting up a zillion 4000 yards seasons (do people really still marvel a tons of yards in this number-inflating passing era?) when his teams have watched the playoffs on TV three of the past four years?
  • What Have You Done For Me Lately? Not much. The Saints are on a two-year skid that has seen them go from a team that was considered a contender year-in and year-out to one that is expected to win maybe seven games next season. A losing season in 2016-17 would be historical for Payton as the Saints head coach: since 2006, the Saints haven't had three consecutive losing seasons, but the odds are that the New Orleans Saints and Sean Payton will make history. The kind they hope they don't make.
  • Sure But Who Would You Put Ahead of Him? I'm glad you asked. On USA Today's list, Mike Tomlin of the Steelers was sixth. Yes, he of the one Super Bowl ring (like Payton), the two Super Bowl appearances and the more recent postseason history. I'd have him ahead of Sean Payton. Ron Rivera of the Panthers was ranked eighth. Wait, this is the guy who has just won the NFC South (going head-to head with Payton) three years in a row. He also had his team in the Super Bowl just this past February. In terms of consistency and recent success, Rivera should absolutely be ranked higher than Payton. I could go on, USA Today also has Mike McCarthy, Andy Reid, Marvin Lewis and Gary Kubiak behind Payton. I disagree on all of them.
  • No Love From Former Saints. What exactly has been happening between Payton and some of his players since 2013? It is also the job of a head coach to keep a minimum of harmony within his team and not lose his locker room. Payton arguably lost the Saints locker room during their tumultuous 2014 season, following which he traded or outright released several key veteran players. But what was most striking was the reactions from said players. Sure, no one likes to be cut or fired, but the outwardly negative reactions from so many former Saints players (Jimmy Graham, Junior Galette, Akiem Hicks, Brandon Browner) or coaches (Rob Ryan) towards the Saints organization makes one wonder whether Payton has inexorably been losing touch with his players and even with some of his staff members in recent years.
  • So Where Would You Rank Him? Ask me around February 2017. The Saints have been saying all the right things, their motto for the 2016 season reportedly is: personal responsibility. But another losing season, a third postseason miss in a row and not only should Payton's seat start to get much warmer in a hurry regardless of the status of his contract, it would mark a significant decline in his abilities as an NFL head coach (at least in New Orleans). All I can tell you is that my ranking of him would be much lower than five if the Saints go 7-9 again.