Mike McCarthy shouldn’t be the only coach looking over his shoulder at Sean Payton

·NFL columnist
·5 min read

If Sean Payton could have borrowed a philosophical line from Aaron Rodgers this week, it might have been that whole “my future is a beautiful mystery” thing. That’s the wide-open, anything-is-possible attitude Payton was selling when he stepped down from his head-coaching duties with the New Orleans Saints this week.

His coaching future? Who knows. Television? That sure sounds great. Orbiting the world of football? Absolutely — but with no solid plans for anything at the moment.

It’s an entertaining prospect, of course. This thought that Payton at 58 years old is rolling without a compass, setting off for unknown frontiers to recharge and rediscover.

Unfortunately, it’s also entirely unbelievable. Especially for a coaching lifer who is about to experience something every successful coach with an ego craves: attention, affection and an entirely open-ended pursuit that won’t be weighed down by having been fired or simply wearing out his welcome.

Make no mistake, there’s no mystery in that kind of future for Sean Payton. Moving forward from this point, he’s going to be on the minds of every franchise that's struggling, and even a few that aren’t.

This is why the instant, blatant dot-connecting to the Dallas Cowboys — who currently have a head coach, Mike McCarthy — was so overcooked. Sure, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones might love Payton, but Jones is just one in a long line of private jets that will be keeping tabs on Payton’s return to the league. Plenty of owners think a great deal of Payton’s resume and skill set, which are so well-established that even the most clueless of billionaires doesn’t need to be told Payton should top his list of head-coaching candidates.

So while McCarthy should be feeling some pressure in 2022, he can take heart in the fact he won’t be alone. In fact, if Payton was available right now and dedicated to coaching this coming season, half the league would likely be interested in having at least one conversation, even if it had to occur behind the back of a current head coach. By the end of next season, that number could swell to more than 20 teams. That’s simply how good Payton is.

Sean Payton's potential availability should spook more head coaches than just the Dallas Cowboys' Mike McCarthy. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Sean Payton's potential availability should spook more head coaches than just the Dallas Cowboys' Mike McCarthy. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

That doesn’t mean Payton’s belle-of-the-ball status doesn’t deserve some scrutiny. If we’re being honest here, he’s stepping down from the Saints at a remarkably smart moment. Not only does he get to say he made the choice to move on, he avoids a salary-cap iceberg that is almost guaranteed to make next season painful in New Orleans. Not to mention the fact that Payton won’t have to spend another season of showcasing what his quarterbacks look like when they aren’t named Drew Brees.

That’s worth some skepticism in the process. So too is the fact that Payton hasn’t been to a Super Bowl in the past 12 years, despite having Brees and a significant amount of talent in that span. Sure, Payton and the Saints have caught some bad breaks that cost them at least one and maybe two Super Bowl shots, but you don’t get credit for close in this league.

That’s part of the brilliance of Payton walking away from New Orleans now. He maintains control of the narrative about his viability as a builder and molder of quarterbacks and culture, and he also gives himself a full year of being on television, saying smart things and showcasing his full personality, without anyone nitpicking him every week over wins and losses.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Payton will be interested in all comers. There are sensible teams that would be very attractive to him. And that’s what made Dallas such an easy connection. Not only has Jones always held him in high regard — enough to target Payton when he fired Jason Garrett following the 2019 season — but Payton himself has long looked at Dallas being a legacy job. That mutual admiration has always kept Jones and Payton circling each other.

That orbit is destined to get more crowded. And while Dallas has a wealth of talent to work with, it won’t be alone in that pitch, especially where it concerns the quarterback and offensive pieces. Consider if Kliff Kingsbury can’t take the next step with Kyler Murray in 2022. What if Deshaun Watson lands in Carolina and Matt Rhule can’t flip the franchise into the right direction? Imagine if Brandon Staley fails to reach the playoffs in year three of Justin Herbert’s career. Those are three situations where Payton would be of titanic interest. And who knows what else happens by the end of next season? Just because an enticing job isn’t open now doesn’t mean it won’t be one year from now.

Remember that, when everyone is so certain Sean Payton’s availability is a problem for Mike McCarthy. Instead, consider that it’s Payton’s unblemished status as a new solution that will make him a problem for an array of head coaches. And know that one year from now, the vast majority of the league is usually hunting for solutions to what went wrong.

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