There must be something about NFL free agency and the name Payton — phonetically speaking, that is.
First, the Indianapolis Colts cut quarterback Peyton Manning earlier this year, creating a free-agent frenzy the likes of which NFL has never seen. Now, reports have surfaced that Sean Peyton, on league-imposed sabbatical from his position as head coach of the New Orleans Saints, could rival his namesake as a coaching free agent after the league voided a contract that the Saints had submitted to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s office for approval.
Last Sunday Goodell visited Atlanta, ostensibly to promote the building of a new stadium for the Falcons, who, coincidentally, were playing the Dallas Cowboys, when Goodell was peppered with questions about Payton (the coach, not the quarterback) and his potential status as a free agent.
“The one contract that was sent into us, I told them what the issue was,” Goodell said. “Now, it’s up to the team and Sean Payton, so until I get something back, it’s up to them.”
Goodell was asked the follow-up as to whether Payton has a contract for after this season?
“Until I’m submitted something, I don’t think I have something to rule on,” he said.
With Dallas in town, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots: Payton, the one-time Cowboys’ assistant head coach turned Super Bowl-winning head coach, owns a home and has family in Dallas; the Cowboys are struggling at 3-5 and questions linger about the future status of Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who has hurt himself with clock-management and overall performance issues.
With the Cowboys being the Cowboys, speculation ensued. Would Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who reportedly has a strong personal relationship with Payton, offer the coach a king’s ransom to bring him back?
Publicly, the Cowboys insist that Garrett is their coach, which they have to do. Publicly, Payton and the Saints are insisting he will remain in New Orleans.
“I absolutely plan on being a New Orleans Saint,” Payton told FOX Sports’ Jay Glazer.
In addition, Saints owner Tom Benson wants to make Payton the league’s highest-paid coach, according to a CBSSports.com report – perhaps more than $7.5 million per season. But if Payton went to Dallas, no doubt Jones would offer him whatever money it took to strike a deal. That’s the power of free agency.
Meanwhile, after their dismal 0-4 start, the Saints have won three out of four and quarterback Drew Brees said they have gotten better each week – which the scores indicate. While it might be too late to catch the 8-0 Falcons in the NFC South, they sit only 1½ games behind Seattle in the wildcard race.
The Saints’ game with archrival Atlanta at the Superdome on Sunday carries huge meaning if the Saints want to get back in the playoff chase. The Saints are trying not to let the issue distract them.
“We’re not thinking about it,” Brees said on Wednesday in a conference call with Atlanta media. “We’re not worrying about it one bit. To be honest with you, I think it was all kind of blown out of proportion a little bit. But, no, we’re not concerned about it. I know our coach, Sean Payton, would want us to be focusing on winning this week and that’s what we’re doing.”
Players might be able to put it out of their collective minds, but that’s not necessarily as true for coaches, who rely on their head coach for employment. A new coach could bring in an all new staff. According to the Times-Picayune, the Saints have received permission from the league to negotiate a contract with Payton, even as he sits out his one-year suspension for his role in the team’s “bounty-gate” scandal.
Saints interim coach Joe Vitt said he would “bet his life” that Payton will return.
“Let me say this: I have not seen the report and I have not heard the report,” Vitt told Atlanta media, “so I don’t know what the report is and I think that people assume, you know, maybe people in the sports world, that players and coaches keep their eyes peeled to ESPN or sports radio and get all the – you know, really the subject hasn’t been brought up around here. That’s No. 1.
“No. 2, the only thing I can promise you is this: Our football team and our football players love Sean Payton and Sean loves this team and loves these players. This city loves Sean and Sean loves this city. Hey, I would anticipate and I would bet my life that he will be here for a long time to come and at some point in time, we’re going to have that stability and our head coach return to our football team…”
In the meantime, the Saints will continue to roil in instability. Maybe Payton will return and maybe he will move 500 miles west to Dallas.