With numerous coaching vacancies around the NFL there’s one name that keeps popping up as the golden goose of 2022: Sean Payton. The former Super Bowl winning coach of the New Orleans Saints is on the verge of returning to the league, and with it the hype and expectation that he can bring immediate success to an ailing franchise.
Payton is good, make no mistake, and his return to the league following a break comes at the perfect time for him. The majority of top coordinators are either still in the playoffs, have accepted head coaching positions, or would rather stay in their current organizations to try to keep pushing for a championship, waiting to see if different positions come available in the future.
There are far more openings right now than sure-thing head coaches, and this vacuum has led to Payton becoming the hottest name in the coaching rumors. To complicate matters he’s still under contract with New Orleans, and any team wanting Payton would need to spend significant draft capital in order to land him. Reportedly the Saints are wanting nothing less than a mid 1st round pick, which would either mean a good team being forced to give up their first round pick, and then some — or a rebuilding team believing that all they need is a good coach, and that’s more important than going a different route and potentially getting a franchise-defining player.
Let’s pump the brakes on all this for one second. Is Sean Payton really worth all this? We know his resume, but is that enough that a team should seriously consider giving up assets to get an established coach over trying to find a next-generation talent?
The case for Sean Payton
If you want to hire a coach who has won a Super Bowl you’re not going to find anyone else. Also, there’s something to be said about bringing in someone with experience.
The NFL has shifted in recent years to see a number of teams desperate to win now. Financial ramifications, new ownership, and the end of an era for many elite quarterbacks has led to an arms race — which was justified by Tampa Bay winning the Super Bowl in 2021, followed by the Rams last season.
In order to become a “win now” team you have to inspire belief in veteran free agents who see your organization as a place where they can get a ring before sailing off into the sunset. This requires talent, a proven direction — and perhaps most importantly, a coach who can get the job done, not just on the field, but in recruiting players.
That makes a team like Denver an obvious potential landing spot. If you really believe there’s juice left to squeeze out of Russell Wilson then there’s perhaps no better way to get this team out of the cellar and back into contention.
I’ll be honest, this is the best argument I can muster — because a win-now situation is the only one that really makes sense.
The case against Sean Payton
Are we really sure Payton can have the same impact without Drew Brees? Like, really, really sure? Because you better have the answer to that before investing the money it would take to hire Payton, and give up the pick required to make it happen.
Payton and Brees were linked for the vast majority of their careers, and the only appreciable success either had was with each other. There’s simply not enough concrete evidence to say whether Brees flourished because of Payton’s system, or if Payton benefitted by having one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time for 15 years.
What is objectively true is that the Saints underperformed with Payton, particularly in the playoffs. We’re talking a 15 year run in the NFC that didn’t require going through Tom Brady and New England, as the AFC had to suffer — and still New Orleans turned that into one Super Bowl win and just two appearances in the NFC Championship game. The rest was mired with flame outs in the Wild Card or Divisional Rounds, despite putting up huge regular season records.
Winning a lot of games is nice, but there’s a different level of scrutiny that comes with Payton now as an older coach requiring massive compensation, than as a doe-eyed assistant as he was when he took the Saints job at age 42.
Of course, that’s before we get to the elephants in the room.
- Being implicated in 2010 prescription drug controversy, which is has yet to be finalized in court
- Being suspended in 2012 for BountyGate
- More or less bailing on the Saints after one failed season without Brees, which may have to been part of a larger scheme to join Tom Brady in Miami
- Subject of the movie Home Team, which sucked
That’s a lot of baggage when you’re staking your entire future on a team.
So... is Payton worth it?
Look, that still depends. As I said, if you’re the Broncos or perhaps even the Cardinals, a team that seems legitimately close to contention and you just feel like you need a coach to put it all together — then maybe.
What confounds me is teams like the Texans and Panthers seeming interested in Payton. Both need a total rebuild, and that becomes a lot more difficult when you have to give up assets just to get the coach.
For the most part we’ve seen coach trades result in a mixed bag. Jon Gruden helped bring a Super Bowl to the Buccaneers, and the Jets trading Bill Belichick will be remembered forever — but what about Herm Edwards to the Chiefs? Mike Holmgren to the Seahawks? Just because success was achieved in one place doesn’t mean it will port over — and situations like Andy Reid are the exception, not the rule.
In the end this is very much buyer beware. Sean Payton is a really good football coach, but there are a lot of good football coaches who don’t require giving up draft capital.