This is newsworthy for any number of reasons. Payton was the second-lost tenured head coach in the NFL, behind only the inscrutable Bill Belichick. The only coach to ever conquer the Super Bowl odds in New Orleans had an impossible level of job security in a sport where almost everyone gets fired if you hang around long enough.
With a situation like that, how could he walk away?
New Orleans Football: Sean Payton Leaves the Saints After 16 Seasons
To really understand the rationale behind Payton’s departure, you have to look at two main factors: Drew Brees and the Saints’ cap sheet.
First, there’s Brees. Even a casual fan knows that the NFL is transitioning through a changing of the guard right now, where the most successful franchises of the last 15-20 years are working through the departure of iconic 21st century quarterbacks.
What will the Steelers look like after Roethlisberger? Are the Patriots really in position to remain contenders with Mac Jones replacing Tom Brady? What does the dropoff from Aaron Rodgers to Jordan Love look like in Green Bay?
These are all questions that we kind of already know the answer to; it’s probably not going to be pretty. Pittsburgh, New England and Green Bay all have good defenses and excellent rosters right now, yet none of it is likely to matter much if they can’t find the next quarterback.
Payton is staring down a similar problem in New Orleans. He understands that in the wake of Brees’ departure, he must struggle along without a roster centerpiece and hope that a quarterback falls from the sky.
This is not an appealing situation for a veteran head coach. It’s hard to blame him for opting out.
In fact, New Orleans’ post-Brees situation might be even worse than the other three situations I outlined. At least Pittsburgh and New England will enter the 2022 season with plenty of cap flexibility without a highly paid quarterback; New Orleans is responsible for a $12.3 million cap hit for Taysom Hill through 2025. (The dead cap hit for 2022 is a brutal $19 million; it drops to $6.7 million in 2023.)
That’s all to say nothing of a massive contract for Michael Thomas, who appears to have both injury and locker room issues, plus $3 million dead cap for Jameis Winston and a whole host of other financial nonsense.
Sean Payton is not an idiot. The Saints have big-time roster and cap problems – some of which, we should point out, he is partially responsible for – and it’s unlikely to get fixed any time soon.
Payton coached his ass off this year. He also went 9-8 and missed the playoffs. What if that’s not repeatable next year? And what if the Saints have roster management issues that won’t be solved for three or four years? What would offensive wizard Sean Payton’s reputation look like then?
Payton doesn’t want to be the face of a long rebuild. With his resume, I can hardly blame him. He wants to walk away known as the guy who crushed it with Brees, before a bad roster dents his reputation and harms his earning potential for his next job. That’s exactly why you’ve seen so much chatter about how this isn’t a retirement.
In fact, this move is the opposite of retirement. It’s almost certainly a move to set up the next job – taking steps to protect his market value, rather than water them down as part of a multi-year team reconstruction. The Saints are going to lose a whole lot of games over the next three years.
When you consider all the factors in New Orleans, the central question is no longer about how Sean Payton could walk away.
If anything, the question is… how could he not?