NFL

Will Sean Payton return to NFL? It won’t be next season, but if he does, here are 6 most likely landing spots

Sean Payton is not coaching in the NFL in 2022. That much we know. Sorry, Dallas Cowboys fans.

It’s not happening, in Dallas or anywhere else. Payton stepped away from the New Orleans Saints after a fantastic 16-year run to reboot, for some unspecified amount of time. Payton himself doesn’t entirely know. But it’s going to be at least one NFL season as he transitions out of working 18-hour days for most of the year, and into a more holistic and free lifestyle.

Could be that one year of working in the media – where this is ultimately headed – is enough for Payton. Could be that he comes to love the ability to spend abundant time with friends and family, enjoying the spoils of his labor (he’s been coaching in one capacity or another continuously since 1988), and decides he’d rather continue to analyze football rather than devote his life to coaching football for a long, long time. There will be suitors, many of them, and owners will be flirting with Payton, aggressively, by the middle of next season. Many will try, sooner rather than later, and perhaps one will succeed by 2023.

At age 58, it could go either way.

Clearly, anyone who watched his riveting and unprecedented press conference on Tuesday could tell that coaching was still very much in his blood, though that could surely wane as he enters a new stage of his life and career. Regardless of what Payton decides, make no mistake that your team isn’t trading for his rights in the coming weeks. His coaching hiatus – not a retirement he implored – is of undetermined length, but will keep him off the sidelines in 2022.

“I don’t know what’s next, and it kind of feels good,” Payton said with a smile during a wildly entertaining and freewheeling 90-minute session with the media (which he will soon enough join).

But before we go any further, let’s acknowledge his inedible imprint on a franchise that was a bit of a laughingstock before he arrived. There were rumors of a possible move to San Antonio, where then-owner Tom Benson had other business interests. They were still hounded by being the “Aints,” with fans wearing bags over their head to games, and winning on the big stage was simply not woven into their organizational DNA.

Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006, a driven fast-riser at just age 33, fresh off leading the passing game for Bill Parcells in Dallas. He would walk away from New Orleans with only Bill Belichick having a longer tenure with any current team. The Saints were coming off a 3-13 season, and they had won just one division title since 1991. They had reached the playoffs once since 1993. And the region would endure some historically destructive storms that would force the team to relocate several times during Payton’s tenure.

He and Drew Brees helped restore the franchise and belief in Who Dat Nation. He would build a perennial playoff contender, would hoist the team’s lone Lombardi Trophy after a coaching tour de force to defeat New Orleans native son Peyton Manning for the chalice. He would win Coach of the Year in his first season there, capping an improbable playoff run, and never finished worse than 7-9; there was always something to play for with him in charge. The NFL banished him for a year as part of its controversial “Bountygate” investigation, and he emerged a more introspective coach, taking a new tact with the media and his players.

Payton won 62% of his games in New Orleans, a franchise that barely won 40% of its games from 1967-2005. They had one playoff win before he arrived; they celebrated nine with Payton at the helm. He passed the 150 win milestone in this past season, one in which he once again willed the team to a near playoff run despite another storm-derailed season and a roster ravaged by injuries — including starting quarterback Jameis Winston — for almost all of the year.    

The fires that burned so bright to bring him to this point may cool down as he transitions from an overburdened schedule to one with almost no professional responsibilities. Personally, I suspect there is a second act in coaching. That’s my hunch. Payton has been the subject of consistent overtures over the years, from college or pro programs, and that will only intensify by the holiday season this year, as owners and athletic directors start to mull which big fish they might be able to haul in to change their fortunes.

It’s hard to imagine at least a half dozen teams – conservatively – aren’t seriously pursuing Payton by the start of 2023. Not even Payton knows exactly where his heart and mind will be by that time, but here’s a handful of teams that could make sense, starting with his buddy Jerry Jones, who has known him most of his professional life and saw his work firsthand as a Cowboys assistant.

Dallas Cowboys

We all know all the ties and connections by now. And we know that Mike McCarthy is hanging on for dear life as Cowboys coach as it is. Particularly with defensive coordinator virtually certain of landing a head coaching gig elsewhere, and with the Dallas offense falling apart the last two years, it would shocking if Jones did not attempt to trade for Payton from the Saints by 2023. But, again, he will have competition.

Matt Rhule’s future in Carolina looks pretty bleak. Owner David Tepper is frustrated and mulled firing him last year. He is desperate for a face of the franchise and someone to finally solve his quarterback riddle. Payton would do both. Going back to the NFC South to face the Saints twice a year might not be something the coach wants to do, but if there is a bidding war for Payton I have a hard time not seeing this billionaire in it. He doesn’t care about the money.

There is very strong mutual admiration between Payton and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Wilson would have coveted playing for him last year had the Saints had the cap and payroll flexibility to make a bold move like that. Pete Carroll’s future in Seattle may hinge on showing real progress in 2022, which looks difficult given their roster and lack of draft picks. If they don’t deal Wilson this offseason, and ownership wants to find a way to get the future Hall of Fame QB to do an extension there, giving him a genius offensive mind like Payton would be a massive coup. Wilson knows exactly what Payton did with Brees, another smaller QB.

Payton in the Big Apple, where his mentor, Bill Parcells, became an icon, just feels right. He could handle that media market and Jets owner Woody Johnson hasn’t been able to get much right to this point with any major decisions. How does this team look in Year 2 under Robert Saleh? How bad is fan apathy? Who better than Payton to try to wring the best out of QB Zach Wilson after a tough rookie year for the second-overall pick? When is the last time the Jets hired a proven, winning NFL head coach?

Kliff Kingsbury’s second halves of seasons continue to leave much to be desired, Kyler Murray hasn’t taken any new bold steps forward in his development and this offense tends to run out of ideas – and productivity – by Thanksgiving. Let’s just say none of this is lost on ownership. Who better to take Kyler to MVP territory? Think of what Payton did with Brees, despite his size limitations? What a massive coaching upgrade that would be.

If this ownership group has been more aggressive in the past, they may have had a chance to trade for Payton in the past. L.A. has long had appeal to him, and coaching Justin Herbert would appeal to anyone. Brandon Staley is a bright young mind, but the Chargers defense better get way better under him in 2022, and the in-game gambles better pay off way more than they did his rookie coaching season to stave off interest in someone as accomplished as Payton. Spending big for a head coach hasn’t been in this team’s DNA in the past, but they also haven’t had a generational QB talent like Herbert in a long, long time, either. Winning someone of note while he is on his rookie contract must be imperative.



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