It would be a sin for Saints to let Payton walk

Alan Truex

It may not have mattered much that the New Orleans Saints beat Tampa Bay 24-17.  It’s still a lost season for the Saints.  And if media reports out of Looziana are true, it’s the last season, being the ninth, that Sean Payton coaches the team.

I’m not sensing a lot of hand-wringing over the likely departure of a coach who has won a Super Bowl and 60 percent of his regular-season games.  The consensus view, in New Orleans and out, seems to be that the Saints haven’t been the same since Bountygate, that Payton’s lost his tactical genius, that quarterback Drew Brees is eroding at 36.

There may be a few grains of truth in all that, but the burial of the Saints is overdone.   Yes they’re headed for a second consecutive losing season, but with Payton as the coach you haven’t seen a bag over anyone’s head.  These ain’t the Aints of times past.

Anyone who saw Brees pluck a last-minute win from the Cowboys or battle Cam Newton evenly for four quarters is not going to say the Hall of Fame-bound quarterback is wearing out.   As long as they have a reasonably fresh Brees and anyone but Rob Ryan running their defense, the Saints are a threat to beat any team they face.

There’s apparently a rift between Payton and his general manager Mickey Loomis. And there’s no question of a rift in the team’s ownership, with 88-year-old Tom Benson trying to disinherit his children, battling in federal court with daughter Renee.

She testified that her father has dementia and is unable to manage his business.  Hardly comforting news for Payton, who’s had his own family squabble, a divorce in which he and his wife sued each other.  All in all, Payton hasn’t had an abundance of good news since his three-year-run of playoff ball that included a Super Bowl victory and ended with a 14-win season in 2011.

Then came Bountygate.

He was punished more than any other NFL head coach has ever been punished for anything.  Payton’s crime was not being diligent enough to prevent his defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, from paying bonuses for putting opposing players out of the game.  Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season.

The prevailing opinion in the national sporting media is that Bountygate, not Super Bowl XLIV or whatever, is the defining moment of the Payton Era.

But is this era ending before it should?  Loomis in this year’s draft brought together a nucleus of promising talent, starting with rangy linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hao’li Kikaha, which is a name we’ll have to learn to pronounce as he gobbles up quarterbacks like they’re pralines.

Quick as he is at sizing up the defense, Brees doesn’t need much blocking, and the Saints don’t give him much.  But protection should improve next year with first-round rookie Andrus Peat maturing a bit and Zach Strief hopefully retiring.  J.J. Watt ran through him like he was a lawn sprinkler.

The Saints have had their personnel problems, and Loomis and Payton can hash it out over who was more at fault for this 5-8 season.   If Payton can be faulted, it’s for his selection of defensive coordinators, from Bountygate architect Williams to the blitz-happy, gap-happy Ryan.  We’ll see how interim DC Dennis Allen does in finishing out this season.

Feeling a cold shoulder from Loomis, Payton is looking for a more stable ownership/management group than what he has with the Benson family feud.  But the teams that are most interested in him – Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts — also have problematic ownership.

Stephen Ross is a global real estate mogul who still finds time to poke his fingers into the football team.  He’s a would-be Jerry Jones without the football knowledge or experience or bubbly congeniality.  Ross has made a series of errant hires for the sideline and the front office.  You don’t go 48-61 with capable ownership.

In Indianapolis we have Jim Irsay, who’s shown up in police reports several times over the past two decades.  He’s been linked to hundreds of different prescription drugs for which he had no prescription.

He partied with some of the world’s greatest substance abusers.  ESPN The Mag reported that one of his treasured possessions is a letter from the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson warning that “your greed crazed outbursts are beginning to rub off on people.”

Pretty serious when Hunter Thompson considers you crazed. But the prerequisites for ownership in the National Football League do not include sanity, sobriety, business sense or even knowledge of football.  

Payton, 51, is committed – for $8 million — to the Saints for next season, so his options are limited.  The Saints will demand draft-pick compensation for letting him slide from his contractual obligations, even if they’d like to push him down the slide.

It’s easy to see why the Colts and Fins are coveting Payton.  They have young highly-drafted quarterbacks whose progress has stalled: Andrew Luck in Indy, Ryan Tannehill in Miami.  These are quarterbacks that a coach as brilliant as Payton surely could improve, though it may not be easy to teach Tannehill how to recognize a blitz and counter it.

We’ve seen abundant evidence of elite coaches raising average quarterbacks into something much better.  Mike Holmgren with Matt Hasselbeck, Bruce Arians with Carson Palmer, Jim Harbaugh – for a while — with Colin Kaepernick.  Payton with Brees.

Tampa Bay in 2002 traded two first-rounders and two seconds to Oakland for head coach Jon Gruden.  The immediate result was a Super Bowl championship, but after that mostly famine.  When the Buccaneers fired Gruden they only got worse.

There’s nothing an owner can do that’s dumber than letting a good coach slip away.  Jeff Lurie in Philadelphia knew he had a good one in Andy Reid, who coached in four consecutive NFC championship games and a Super Bowl.  But Reid had a losing record – — his first in seven years — in 2012.  So he was eased out.

Reid quickly rebuilt the Kansas City Chiefs, who are considerably closer to playing in a Super Bowl than Philly is now with Chip Kelly.

Same thing in San Francisco.  Jed York couldn’t wait to lose Harbaugh, who had his team in the NFC championship game three out of his four years.  York now has Jim Tomsula and a 4-9 team that can’t come close to beating Cleveland.  Whoever’s in charge of the Saints, if anyone is, should consider that if you have a good coach, it’s best to keep him.

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