Sean Payton, restorer of hope after Katrina, steps down from Saints

Jude Papillion, Sports Editor

Sean Payton
After 16 seasons in New Orleans, Sean Payton has stepped down as head coach of the Saints after ten winning seasons and a Super Bowl victory. After signing with the Saints just months after Katrina, Payton forever changed the culture of a devastated city. (Matthew Tate)

Just one season after future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees announced his retirement from football and the New Orleans Saints, Sean Payton, the head coach of the Black and Gold for the past 16 seasons, has announced his departure from the franchise

Payton was hired by Saints’ general manager Mickey Loomis in January of 2006, just months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf South region. Payton’s gig with the Saints was his first as a head coach, after previously serving as an assistant under Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells in Dallas and nearly winning the Super Bowl as offensive coordinator of the Giants before that. 

Payton’s positive impact on the Saints organization was felt immediately. In March 2006, Payton and the Saints gave an opportunity to a free-agent quarterback that many thought might never play another down after tearing his labrum in the 2005 season. His name was Drew Brees, and, along with a stellar draft class the next month that included the likes of Reggie Bush, Roman Harper, Jahri Evans and Marques Colston, the 10-6 Saints had their most successful season in franchise history up to that point. 

Payton was named Associated Press Coach of the Year following the Saints appearance in the NFC Championship that season after reinvigorating a team that went 3-13 the year before.

“I still say to this day in ’06, we’ve had a lot of teams probably teams that are better, but none tougher than that ’06. None tougher than that ’06 team,” Payton said at his retirement press conference. “And that leads me back to that whole city rebirth and fan base, and people that’s when I grew to know like, holy cow, this is bigger than anything … This is more than just football.”

The Saints have sold out the Caesars Superdome in every season since 2006

Payton and the Saints ultimately won the Super Bowl three seasons later against Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in the 2009 season largely due to Payton’s decision to open the second half with an unexpected onside kick that the Saints recovered. The Saints began their Super Bowl run by starting the season 13-0 and beating the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship before restoring hope to a city that had been lost after devastation. 

Following the Bountygate scandal that saw Payton’s suspension for the entire 2012 season, the Saints found new life in the 2017 NFL Draft. After acquiring Marshon Lattimore and Alvin Kamara among others in the draft and still having Brees at the team’s helm, the Saints won the NFC South four straight times but failed to return to the Super Bowl, making it as far as the highly controversial 2018 NFC Championship game against the Los Angeles Rams. 

In the recent 2021 season, many believed Payton should have received Coach of the Year honors after finishing 9-8 and barely missing the postseason despite temporarily relocating due to Hurricane Ida, losing key players to injury and being shown no mercy from the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols. 

After spending two weeks in Cabo San Lucas following the end of the Saints’ 2021 campaign, Payton decided to step down as head coach on Jan. 25. And who can blame him? Despite winning more games than anyone in the NFL over the past five seasons except Kansas City, the Saints and Payton were stopped short in heartbreaking fashion year after year.

Payton compiled a 161-97 record with a .631 winning percentage during his time with the Saints, including 10 winning seasons, nine playoff berths and seven NFC South titles. 

We are now left to wonder what is next for Payton. Over the weeks prior to his retirement, numerous rumors swirled about Payton potentially leaving New Orleans for another team or to follow his former quarterback Brees into the realm of network television. 

“I don’t know what’s next. And it kind of feels good,” Payton said. “But know that my plans are not to be coaching in 2022. That’s just how I feel.”

While Payton claims he has not spoken to anyone about switching from coaching to television, he is open to the idea. “I’ve had some opportunities [as a guest analyst]. I talked to [Brees] a little bit about it last night. I don’t know that part of it that well. But that would be something that would interest me.”

We are also left to wonder who will be handed the reins as the 17th head coach of the Saints. With five other NFL teams currently searching for a head coach, the Saints are already assessing their options, requesting interviews with Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and former Dolphins’ head coach Brian Flores. Glenn served as the Saints’ defensive backs coach from 2016-2020, and Leftwich has been commanding Tom Brady’s offense against New Orleans since 2019. To the surprise of many within the football community, Flores was unexpectedly fired by Miami after going 9-8 this season. 

Will it be Dennis Allen or Pete Carmichael, the Saints current defensive and offensive coordinators? Both were on Payton’s original coaching staff in 2006, and, before Allen took over as defensive coordinator, the Saints were consistently near the bottom of the league in total and scoring defense. 

Could it be Joe Lombardi, another long time Payton assistant who last served as the Saints’ quarterbacks coach from 2016-2020. Lombardi is currently in his first season as offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Chargers, and his unit ranked third in passing yards and fourth in total offense this season.

Other names are still in the conversation as well, including Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, a New Orleans native and another Black American who is yet to secure a head coaching job despite his accomplishments.

Regardless of how odd it might be for an NFL head coach to leave after such a long tenure filled with immense success, Payton will always have a special place in the heart of every Saints fan. 

The magnitude of Coach Payton’s importance to New Orleans and Louisiana cannot be overstated and extends much farther than the confines of the Superdome. Payton, along with his long-time friend Loomis and generational talent Brees, turned a struggling team from a city ravaged by disaster into a beacon of hope for the community that continues to shine brightly today.

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