Add Sean Payton to Garrett’s list of problems

From a career standpoint, the news couldn’t have been any worse for Jason Garrett. While he was holed up in a posh hotel in Atlanta with his team, an ESPN report surfaced that exiled Saints head coach Sean Payton could possibly become a free agent after the season.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, already a man at odds with the Saints organization confirmed Sunday that he’d rejected the club’s contract offer to Payton a few months ago. And of course every Cowboys fan knows that Payton once rehabilitated his coaching career while serving as offensive coordinator under Bill Parcells’ Valley Ranch regime.

And no matter what you think of Payton’s role in Bountygate, he’s won 62 games in six seasons with the Saints and led them to a Super Bowl title. The fact that he moved his family back to Dallas in recent years and has an extremely close relationship with Jerry Jones has only fueled speculation that he’ll eventually take over as head coach of the Cowboys. Sunday’s revelation only added gasoline.

Oh, and it doesn’t help that Garrett’s Cowboys wasted another golden opportunity in a 19-13 loss to the Falcons at the Georgia Dome. It was a loss that stayed with this season’s theme. There were dropped passes, back-breaking penalties and the inability to make a play with the game on the line. And there was the humorless man from Princeton at the dais telling us the Falcons “have great players.”

Even Rob Ryan’s defense, which has been credible at times this season, folded in the end. This is a team that has zero sense of the moment and it’s not like a soft schedule in the second half of the season holds any true reason for optimism. The Cowboys are the ultimate NFL tease because they play just well enough to trick fans into thinking they have a shot. And the fact that Jerry told Bob Costas in a sit-down interview that he believes his team is talented enough to win a Super Bowl tells you everything you need to know. At age 70, the Cowboys owner is farther away from reality than at any time in the past 17 years of serial mediocrity. But this news about Payton will make it even tougher for Jones to stick with Garrett.

Payton is the anti-Garrett. In my 11 years of covering the league, he’s the most self-assured/cockiest coach I’ve dealt with. He believes he’s the smartest man in the league and he often backs it up with the way his offense has performed. His stock has never been higher as the Saints continue to implode without him at the helm. But the good news for Garrett is that Payton is much too smart to bolt New Orleans for Arlington. Yes, he’s relocated his family to Westlake and has been able to spend a lot of time with his kids this season as they try to deal with he and his wife Beth’s recent divorce. He’s maintained a close relationship with folks at Valley Ranch, but do you think he watched that game last night and felt a sense of urgency to work with Kevin Ogletree and Dez Bryant?

As Peter King reported Sunday, the Eagles might make a stronger run at Payton than the Cowboys. In case you haven’t paid attention, Jerry loathes admitting his mistakes. But it still bothers him that he was so quick to pull the plug on Chan Gailey all those years ago. And the Jones family loved Wade Phillips more than you can imagine. It just about killed Jerry to make that call midway though the 2010 season. To admit that he whiffed on hiring Garrett is too much for him to bear at this point. And that’s why he’ll continue to support him publicly.

But it wouldn’t shock me one bit if someone from Jerry’s camp has reached out to Payton over the past 24 hours. They need to at least figure out what Payton’s thinking at this point because you’d be crazy not to pursue him if he’s available.

My sense is that Payton realizes a good situation when he sees one. And he’s more of a legend in New Orleans than ever. Why would anyone in their right mind want to walk away from that?

Meanwhile, Garrett will remind us all that winning is a process. And I guess the same holds true for losing.