Sean Payton steps away as head coach of New Orleans Saints, leaves door open for eventual NFL return
The NFL's coaching carousel will have one more opening.
Sean Payton announced in a news conference Tuesday he is stepping away from the New Orleans Saints but did not rule out an eventual return to coaching in the future, or even a television analyst role.
"As I sit here today, and this is OK, I don't know what's next," Payton said. "I read the reports, and I understand, but I haven't spoken to anyone from a media outlet relative to doing television or radio. Maybe that opportunity arises. ... I think I'd like to do that. I think I'd be pretty good at it. Stepping outside in the cold weather today and being a little uncomfortable professionally or from a career standpoint is OK.
"I don't like the word retirement. ... I still have a vision for doing things in football. And to be honest with you, that might be coaching again at some point. I don't think it's this year. I think maybe in the future, but that's not where my heart is right now. It's not at all."
Payton remains under contract with the Saints through 2024. If Payton wanted to return to coach another team before then, the organization would have to provide compensation to New Orleans to facilitate a deal.
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When asked later about the timing of the announcement, Payton added: "My plans are not to be coaching in 2022. That’s just how I feel."
Payton spent much of his opening statement thanking Saints owner Gayle Benson, her late husband, Tom, general manager Mickey Loomis, scores of players and the city of New Orleans.
NFL Network was the first to report the news about Payton stepping away.
This comes just one day after Benson said she hadn’t heard from Payton about his plans for the future.
At his news conference — and in a nod to the show "Ted Lasso" — Payton delivered a box with a mini King Cake to Benson to thank her.
Payton said it was Benson who suggested Payton take some time away from the facility to think about his future.
The Saints are coming off a difficult season in which they were still in playoff contention until the final week of the season. New Orleans (9-8) lost starting quarterback Jameis Winston to a significant knee injury at the end of October and dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that forced Payton to shuffle around his players and assistant coaches.
Payton said that headed into this season's training camp, he suspected it might be time for him to walk away.
"I felt the time was right for me," Payton said. "That's something I've been thinking about. ... Not many get to choose their terms. I looked at it as an opportunity to see my kids more, travel more, get in better shape."
Payton tested positive for COVID-19 for a second time in December and missed the team's victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 15.
Payton confirmed Tuesday that he reached out to quarterback Drew Brees, who retired last offseason, about returning to play for the Saints ahead of their Week 16 game against the Dolphins when New Orleans was faced with their COVID-19 issues. Payton said he spoke Monday night to Brees, currently an analyst with NBC, to ask for advice about how to handle the news conference.
"I think both of us agreed, based on our lineup versus Miami, it was a good thing he stayed (with NBC) and didn’t come," Payton said.
Payton, 58, was hired in 2006, and had stood as the head coach in the NFL with the second-longest tenure (16 years), behind only Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots (22 years).
Payton compiled a 152-89 (.631) record in that span, including a victory against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 44 after the 2009 season.
Despite being with the team 16 years, Payton coached 15 seasons because he was suspended the entire 2012 season for his role in the infamous bounty scandal in which the NFL found that he tried to cover up a cash bounty system that allegedly targeted key players on opposing teams.
Payton returned the following season and led the Saints to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth.
He is credited for turning around a Saints franchise that had been bogged down in ineptitude and never won a title. The season before Payton arrived, the Saints went 3-13 and finished last in their division. In Payton's first season, New Orleans posted a seven-victory improvement and won the NFC South, which earned him the 2006 AP Coach of the Year award.
In the 13 seasons prior to Payton's arrival, the Saints posted only one double-digit victory season, in 2000. In the 15 seasons Payton coached, New Orleans recorded nine such campaigns.
The Saints ranked in the top five in scoring offenses in the NFL in 10 of Payton's 15 seasons.
Perhaps his lasting achievement in New Orleans, however, is the success Payton enjoyed in the playoffs. New Orleans, in its 55 years as an NFL franchise, has recorded 10 playoff victories. Payton was the coach for nine of them.
The Saints boast a defense that ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring (19.7 points per game allowed) and return several dynamic playmakers on offense. Salary-cap issues, however, could prompt further changes for the franchise this offseason, as New Orleans currently stands $74 million over the limit for next year, according to overthecap.com.
"They talked all the time about leaving a place maybe better than when you got there to begin with," Payton said, recalling his late parents. "I think we've done that. It's not finished. We've got all these coaches that are sitting here with contracts and Mickey with the leadership in place to continue that. We're not writing an obituary today. It's a step. It's just another direction."