June 1, 2023

Sean Payton is haunting NFL coaches on the hot seat

Sean Payton

Sean Payton
Photo: Getty Images

It’s rare to read scuttlebutt about which job a coach wants. The job market for unemployed coaches typically works the other way around. Jobs open up, a slew of coaching candidates cram into the interview lobby. Sean Payton is in a unique position where he can call the shots.

Payton is a transcendent offensive mastermind. During his time in New Orleans, the Saints finished first in total offense six times in 16 seasons, twice they led the league in scoring and four times and top-three scoring offense. Between 2006 and 2018, they gained more yards than any team in NFL history over a 12-year span. Then, like the Avatar, he was gone.

In his stead, the Saints offense has cratered. He ascended to quarterback heaven, as a studio analyst for FOX. But unlike most retired coaches, we never buried Payton’s career. It was presumed he’d eventually return after a sabbatical, possibly as soon as 2023. He allegedly attempted to fill the vacancy in Miami and lure the “retired” Tom Brady to town but that plan fell through. Since then, he’s opted for spilling insider football knowledge on Colin Cowherd’s couch instead.

That couldn’t last though. According to ESPN NFL reporters Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler, Payton has narrowed his focus on the Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals. Somewhere in downtown Dallas, a gust of wind swept through town from Mike McCarthy breathing a sigh of relief.

Payton has options and he’s wisely fixated on teams with franchise quarterbacks. Los Angeles has the most stable quarterback situation. However, they’re sorely lacking in offensive ingenuity and mismanaging Justin Herbert. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has defanged Herbert. After being hailed for his lethal downfield passing during his first two trips around the NFL sun, he’s suddenly developed the passing profile of Chad Pennington.

Arizona’s problems are well-documented and Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive genius is overstated. He doesn’t take advantage of pre-snap motion, his teams disintigrate in the second half of the season and the relationship with his quarterback is tumultuous. However, the offensive personnel on Arizona is woefully underutilized. Murray’s size may be a slight hindrance, but Payton showed during 15 seasons with Drew Brees what he could do with a diminutive signal caller. If the Cardinals are going to invest $230 million in Murray, they might as well splurge on all the accouterments.

Kingsbury’s paint-by-numbers spread offensive scheme isn’t cutting it, but Payton is a master tailor. The bespoke offense he’ll design for Murray should have enough doohickies to keep defenses honest and get the Cardinals playmakers in open space or open downfield.

There is one obstacle, however. In return, the team that eventually hires him will owe compensation to the New Orleans Saints in the form of picks. Herm Edwards and Jon Gruden are the most prolific coaches to be traded while under contract. In 2006, Edwards was released from his contract to become the Chiefs head coach. The Chiefs forwarded a fourth-round pick. Then, in 2002 the Raiders traded Jon Gruden to the Buccaneers in exchange for Tampa’s first round picks in the next two drafts as well as second rounders in 2002 and 2004. Tampa won a Super Bowl in year one.

The Payton reports should have Brandon Staley and especially Kingsbury feeling uneasy. Staley’s Chargers offense is struggling this season, but he’s generated more goodwill in Los Angeles than Kingsbury has in half the time. Kingsbury was hired as offensive guru, yet the Cardinals have never been a top-10 scoring team.

Payton’s name was previously hovering around the Dallas job. From the sounds of it, Payton saw the Cowboys blow the VIkings to smithereens and realized he should have a backup plan.

However, #PaytonWatch has hovered around vulnerable coaches all season long like some sort of spirit haunting teams on the brink. Endure a two-game losing streak and you’ll feel Payton’s presence in the room even though he’s long since passed on from the active NFL coaching world. This could drag on for another year, because Payton is under contract with New Orleans until 2024, but active coaches are hoping a coaching sacrifice is made on the Sean Payton altar and turn the heat down on the rest of them.