The news this week that Sean Payton’s contract with the New Orleans Saints will be finished after his year-long suspension, has sent the NFL world into a fluster. As analysts frantically try to find the best new fit for Payton, team officials of the Saints are preparing to enter negotiations with Payton, while officials of the other 31 teams are trying not to get distracted by the prospect of landing the Super Bowl winning head coach. And the fans? The fans are simply trying to find room to digest this news while being engulfed in the football on the field.
As with any potential big name free agent, the knee-jerk reaction is to link them with a major market team. There is no major market team than the Dallas Cowboys. Conveniently for everyone, the Cowboys qualify as a team who are not satisfied with the performance of their head coach. Even though it is very difficult to really blame Jason Garrett, much like Tony Romo he is in a losing situation as the losing culture permeates from the top with Jerry Jones. While it makes sense for the Cowboys to go after Payton, it makes no sense for Payton to go to the Cowboys.
Payton may have been with the Cowboys prior to becoming the Saints’ head coach, but he rose to prominence in Louisiana when he built a Super Bowl winning team. Should he leave New Orleans, Payton would presumably want to go to the team that gives him the best opportunity to further his legacy and win another Super Bowl. He should be more determined than ever to win a second Super Bowl after the events of last year. It may seem shocking, but Payton’s best chance at winning a Super Bowl is the Cleveland Browns.
Now of course when considering what teams Payton could win with, you have to be realistic. Obviously taking over the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers would be ideal, but that’s simply never going to happen.
The 2009 Super Bowl Champion Saints were built by Payton, as he used his intelligence to build an offensive juggernaut capable of carrying his team. After adding Payton, the Saints brought in Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief in his very first year. Payton, along with the Saints’ scouting team, were excellent at identifying pieces who would flourish in his system. Even though his offense wasn’t anywhere near what it is today from a talent point of view, the Saints went from 31st in scoring the year before Payton arrived to fifth in 2006.
As good as Payton was with the offense, he understood his limitations with a defense that was far from talented. Instead of having an ego that hurt his team(hello Jerry Jones!!!), Payton actively recruited Gregg Williams to come in and run his defense in 2009 and even gave up $250,000 of his salary to pay for the defensive coordinator. That showed Payton’s commitment to winning, but also his understanding of his own abilities.
Understand his own abilities is very important for assessing the best fit for him moving forward. Payton is unlikely to be willing to coach in Dallas if Jerry Jones remains in control the way he is, and it wouldn’t be prudent for him. Instead, Payton would be better fit with a team where he could focus on rebuilding, redesigning or revitalizing an offense while someone else takes care of the defense. In Cleveland, the Browns are already running this system with their coaching staff as head coach Pat Shurmur is an offensive inclined head coach, while Dick Jauron primarily runs the defense.
Jauron is managing a very young and talented defense who has played well this season despite missing it’s two most important players, Phil Taylor and Joe Haden. The Browns’ defense has the potential to be better than any defense the Saints ever had during Payton’s time as the head coach, while the key pieces are all young enough to still be effective well into the future. That is vital because Payton will likely need time to revamp the team’s offense.
With time however, Payton would have plenty of pieces already in place in Cleveland. Rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden likely would need to be replaced, but it would be a brave man to bet against Payton getting the best out of him. Trent Richardson appears to be the next superstar running back, while Joe Thomas, Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz look like some of the best young players at their positions in the whole league. Throw in some talented receivers in Josh Gordon, Greg Little and Travis Benjamin for Payton to groom and build around, and the Browns have a lot in place already with the potential to build on.
Jimmy Haslam’s takeover of the franchise should usher in a new era as Mike Holmgren’s departure has already been confirmed. Instead of going to the Cowboys where he would have to deal with Jones, Haslem would likely let Payton choose his own general manager if he signed on in Cleveland.
Cian Fahey writes for RantSports, Irishcentral, The Guardian, Balls.ie and FootballGuys. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf