Garrett can slam the door on Payton talk

IRVING, Texas — Under different circumstances, this could have been an incredibly awkward week for Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. Had the Cowboys not turned their season around by winning five out of six games, including three straight in December, this week would’ve been all about exiled Saints head coach Sean Payton.

The former Cowboys offensive coordinator still doesn’t have a valid contract with the New Orleans Saints, and it looks like he’ll be able to keep his options open into the offseason. And from all indications, the idea of working with close friend Jerry Jones is quite appealing to Sean Payton.

But, at least in my mind, Garrett can put all that talk to rest with a win over the Saints at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday. He will have rallied his team from a 3-5 start to the cusp of a playoff appearance. Payton is certainly far more accomplished and dynamic than Garrett, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be working for the Cowboys next season. Jerry’s not above making cutthroat business decisions, but firing Garrett after how he has performed under immense pressure would be downright cruel.

There’s also the fact that Jones has always believed that coaches are overpaid. The thought of him paying Payton somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 million to $8 million per year would be tough for him to stomach. The only reason he would have made such a splashy move is if fans had stopped showing up at Cowboys Stadium. According to my eye test, only about 60,000 showed up for the home game against the Cleveland Browns. But an enormous crowd showed up for the Steelers game — maybe one-third of them waving Terrible Towels — and there will likely be a record crowd to watch the game Sunday.

I’ve heard folks mention that hiring Payton would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But I guess the same could have been said about Bill Parcells. And though Parcells certainly restored some credibility to the organization and helped get a stadium in Arlington approved, he wasn’t able to win a single playoff game. Payton has been enormously successful in New Orleans, but he wouldn’t enjoy the same type of control in the Cowboys organization. Jerry tried to stay out of Parcells’ way right up until the point he decided to sign Terrell Owens. That was the beginning of the end for those two.

Payton should also think long and hard about what he’d be leaving behind in New Orleans. If his good pal Mickey Loomis wanted to join him in Dallas, he’d have to drop that “G” title immediately. The NFL reportedly wouldn’t approve Payton’s most recent contract with the Saints because of wording that basically gave the head coach the right to opt-out if the general manager were fired. The league thought this might set a dangerous precedent.

But what Roger Goodell did is turn Payton into the most coveted free-agent coach of the past decade. Of course, he also helped turn Payton into somewhat of a martyr by suspending him from the league without pay for an entire season for his role in Bountygate. Now, Payton will look to land a new contract that will account for not being paid in 2012. And don’t forget that he’s in the middle of what will surely be an expensive divorce.

But if the Cowboys can beat Payton’s Saints on Sunday, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be replacing Garrett. Jerry’s son Stephen has made it clear in recent weeks that Garrett’s coming back next season, but Jerry will be the ultimate decision-maker. He’s watched Garrett turn this season around while guiding the Cowboys through a tragedy. And even before this impressive stretch, Garrett didn’t seem to let the speculation regarding Payton’s future bother him.

“I don’t think so much about that kind of stuff,” Garrett said Wednesday. “What I try to do is the same thing I try to emphasize to our players — focus on this day, the task at hand and do your job the best you can do it.”

During the past month, Garrett has changed the way a lot of folks perceive him. And that will likely allow him to ward off Payton this time around.

It looks as though Payton will have to find another team to help him string the Saints along.