Pursuit of Sean Payton looms, if it hasn’t already started

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In past years, while Sean Payton was coaching the Saints, November and December would be the time for Sunday Splash! reports (Payton himself coined the term) suggesting that this year would be his last year in New Orleans.

Last year, which was actually his last year in New Orleans, there were no reports during the season suggesting that he’d be done.

This year, it’s just a matter of time before reports emerge linking Payton to potential openings in 2023. He has made it clear he’ll coach again. The questions are where, and when?

“Ultimately, do I think I’ll get back in? Sure,” Payton told Jarrett Bell of USA Today in July. “There’s no way to predict who that club might be. Usually, there are about six openings every year. If there’s a right fit somewhere, that ultimately will depend on several factors.”

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald previously listed some of the factors: (1) warm weather; (2) a roster that can compete; and (3) control over personnel decisions.

Other important factors apply. Specifically, what the team is willing to pay Payton — and what the team is willing to give the Saints.

Payton, appearing on the most recent episode of the Manningcast, said in jest (we think) regarding Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, “He has a chance to be a free agent, and I have a chance to be a free agent.”

There’s a very slim chance of either happening. The Ravens won’t let Jackson walk away. The Saints surely won’t let Payton walk away, either.

The Saints still hold Payton’s contractual rights, at least through 2024. Arguably, they’re entitled to compensation for his services indefinitely. He left with three years remaining on his contract. The Saints could take the position that he can’t simply sit out for three years and then go wherever he wants, that his contract expires after he voluntarily walks away.

It’s an issue that could end up in a legal battle if a coach ever quits with one year left on his contract, and then tries to join another team after sitting out a year. It won’t be an issue with Payton, because he won’t be sitting out three years. He almost didn’t sit out one year.

The Dolphins were reportedly ready to surrender a first-round pick to get Payton for 2022 and beyond. As one league source recently put it, other teams should have been trying to do the same thing. Payton is a proven commodity. Coordinators with no head-coaching experience are a crapshoot.

Although several of them are doing well this year (Giants coach Brian Daboll, Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel), Nathaniel Hackett is struggling with the Broncos. Indeed, it’s already clear that he’s one of those coordinators who is good enough to get a promotion to a job at which he’s not very good. (There’s a chapter in Playmakers about this dynamic. I mention that because it’s true, and because Playmakers would be a great gift for someone else, or yourself, during the holiday season.)

Payton has shown he can be, and is, a great coach. What’s wrong with the Saints this year? With all due respect to Dennis Allen and company, they don’t have Sean Payton. He’s a force of nature. An every-waking-moment dynamo who demands a full and complete commitment, and who makes one. Not content to have a “system” that works offensively, he’s constantly looking for ways to make it better. For ways to stay ahead of each and every defense his team will be facing.

He’s worth a first-round pick. Actually, he’s worth more than that. He’s worth $20 million a year. Actually, he’s worth more than that.

Really, what’s more important to an NFL team? One great player, or one great coach?

Payton isn’t the only great NFL coach. But he’s the only great one who is currently unattached, and who will be eyeing potential openings for a hiring cycle that begins seven weeks from today.

And the drill is well known by now. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, owners routinely decide that their teams need a new coach. This time around, Payton is in the mix of potential candidates to turn around a team, quickly if not immediately.

Surely, some owner is already plotting a path to Payton. Possibly, that owner is already putting it in motion.

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