Saints owner Tom Benson has gone on record saying he is strongly considering making Sean Payton the highest-paid coach in the NFL. Payton’s reputation took a huge hit earlier this year when the league office was investigating “Bountygate” and discovered that Payton was aware of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ policy of paying his players to hurt opposing players. Payton was suspended for (at least) a year, and the Saints have been decidedly-underwhelming in his absence.
It’s roughly midseason and the annual coach carousel is beginning to spin. Andy Reid is on the hot seat in Philadelphia. San Diego head coach Norv Turner is almost certainly going to be fired at the end of the season. Now, speculation is turning to the possibility that Sean Payton takes this opportunity to either get a max contract from Benson’s Saints or find a greener pasture.
Jerry Jones is interested in Payton. Jerry Jones has a lot of money. Jerry Jones has made a career out of making large and rash decisions. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are coming off a potentially season-saving win against the Eagles last Sunday, and therein lies the conundrum.
If the Cowboys can manage to turn their season around and make the playoffs then Jones will, in all likelihood, retain head coach Jason Garrett. But, Garrett himself has been underwhelming since replacing Wade Phillips in 2010. Jones seems to get by with the content feeling of owning the second most valuable sports franchise on Earth, but he is also growing tired of the same mediocrity year-in, year-out. He doesn’t blame QB Tony Romo, though. His son, Stephen (who is the team’s vice president), has recently opened up contract negotiations with Romo, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he believes Romo will get better. “There are a lot of quarterbacks it doesn’t happen right way for them as far as winning championships and that type of thing,” Jones said. “You don’t have to look any further than some of the Hall of Famers like Elway and Favre. It came late in their careers.”
That’s all well and good, and could be incredibly off the mark, but it signals two things. The first is where they are headed in terms of building (in that they are not rebuilding). The second is that the team’s top brass don’t believe Romo is the problem. As these things continue to trickle down the blame will eventually be placed on Jason Garrett’s shoulders. Jerry Jones doesn’t hire too many “big name” coaches, because Jerry Jones doesn’t appreciate being challenged by strong minds. He only ever seems to do so when said coach has won a championship—Jimmy Johnson won a NCAA championship before he was hired in 1989 and Bill Parcells won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants.
Sean Payton is a very good coach. He beat Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV and his name has been (jokingly) thrown into the mix for Coach of the Year the same way Manning’s name was mentioned numerous times last season as a possible MVP candidate. The Saints are clearly missing Payton on the sidelines and could miss the playoffs this year for the first time since 2008. Of course, if they do manage to squeak their way into the playoffs it could likely result in keeping the Cowboys out of the playoffs.
In terms of the Saints stretching expectations while the Cowboys fall on their sword, it’s a scenario we’ve seen before. It’s also important to note that Payton has worked with the Cowboys before, as he was the offensive coordinator in Dallas from 2003-2005. That means that Payton, offensive guru extraordinaire that he is, has worked with Tony Romo (the QB was signed in 2003). Payton has also worked under Jerry Jones before, so he knows the operation.
Considering the solid possibility that the Dallas Cowboys completely fall apart, Jason Garrett could very well be out of a job come January. Sean Payton wants to get paid just like anyone else, and now that he knows Benson is considering making him a higher-paid coach than even Bill Belichick he won’t stop at making that a reality. If Jones wants to pry Payton away from the Saints then he knows it will take the same commitment. It certainly helps that Payton reveres the Cowboys and Jerry Jones. It helps even more that Payton’s children live with their mother in the Dallas suburb of Westlake, Texas. Payton has been serving as the offensive coordinator of his son’s sixth-grade football team in Arlington since being suspended from coaching the Saints. He feels at home in Dallas, and he could feel very much at home manning the sidelines at Cowboys Stadium on Sundays.
Time will tell, but the pieces are all in place—so much that it almost suggests Payton planned it all this way. His contract extension through 2015 was voided when GM Mickey Loomis was suspended as a result of the league’s investigations (there was an odd clause in Payton’s contract that set it up that way).
I wouldn’t bet on Payton leaving New Orleans, simply because owner Tom Benson is incredibly loyal to his embattled head coach and is in a spending mood after purchasing the New Orleans Hornets last Spring. But don’t sleep on the possibility of Sean Payton returning to the Dallas Cowboys. As we learned this week in the Phil Jackson Laker saga, stranger things have happened before.