Sean Payton is hot seating NFL coaches

Sean Payton

Sean PaytonPhoto: Getty Images

It’s rare to read gossip about what job a coach wants to have. The labor market for unemployed coaches typically works in reverse. Jobs become vacant, a crowd of coaching candidates crowd into the interview lobby. Sean Payton is in a unique position to call the shots.

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

In its place the offensive of the Saints broke in. As a studio analyst for FOX, he rose to quarterback heaven. But unlike most retired coaches, we never buried Payton’s career. It was suggested he would eventually return after a sabbatical, possibly as early as 2023. He reportedly tried to fill the Miami position and lure “retired” Tom Brady to the city, but that plan fell through. He has since opted to spill his insider football knowledge on Colin Cowherd’s couch instead.

But that couldn’t last. According to ESPN-NFL reporters Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler, Payton has narrowed his focus to the Los Angeles Chargers and Arizona Cardinals. Somewhere in downtown Dallas, a gust of wind swept through the city as Mike McCarthy breathed a sigh of relief.

Payton has options and is wisely fixated on teams with franchise quarterbacks. Los Angeles has the most stable quarterback situation. However, they sorely lack offensive ingenuity and Justin Herbert’s mismanagement. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi detoxified Herbert. After being acclaimed for his deadly downfield passing game during his first two trips around the NFL sun, he’s suddenly developed the passing profile of Chad Pennington.

Arizona’s troubles are well documented and Kliff Kingsbury’s offensive genius is exaggerated. He doesn’t take advantage of pre-snap moves, his teams disintegrate in the second half of the season, and his relationship with his quarterback is tumultuous. However, the offensive staff on Arizona is woefully underutilized. Murray’s size may be a minor obstacle, but Payton showed what he could do with a tiny signal caller over 15 seasons with Drew Brees. If the Cardinals want to invest $230 million in Murray, they might as well afford all the equipment.

Kingsbury’s offensive paint-by-number system doesn’t cut it, but Payton is a master tailor. The bespoke offense he will design for Murray should have enough doohickies to keep the defense honest and put the Cardinals’ playmakers in open space or open downfield.

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

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

Payton’s name previously floated around the Dallas job. Judging by the sounds, Payton saw the Cowboys blowing the VIkings to pieces and realized he should have a contingency plan.

However, #PaytonWatch has been circling vulnerable coaches all season, like some kind of ghost-hunting and precipice team. If you come through a two-game losing streak, you’ll feel Payton’s presence in the room, even though he’s long since retired from the active NFL coaching world. This could drag on for another year as Payton is signed with New Orleans until 2024, but active coaches hope that a coaching sacrifice will be made on the altar of Sean Payton and shut down the rest of them.