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After 16 years with the New Orleans Saints, having led the franchise to a cathartic Super Bowl win and having authored some of the most explosive offenses in NFL history, Sean Payton is walking away on his terms.
The Saints’ longtime coach informed the organization of his retirement Tuesday, according to an NFL Network report, ending the longest and most successful run by a coach in franchise history. The final act of this Saints career was guiding a short-handed team to a 30-9 win against the rival Atlanta Falcons in the Jan. 9 regular-season finale. It was his 161st win as the Saints head coach, 68 more than Jim Mora, the Saints second-winningest coach.
It is not yet clear what the future has in store for the 58-year-old Payton, though he has been rumored to be a top target for a lucrative on-screen position with one of the major broadcasting networks.
There is no room for debate when considering Payton’s standing in the Saints’ all-time coaching hierarchy, because that history is cleaved into two distinct eras: what happened before and after Payton’s arrival.
Before the Saints hired Payton on Jan. 18, 2006, they had little football history of which to be proud. New Orleans waited 20 years after the Saints’ inception to record its first winning season. It did not win a playoff game until 2000, its 34th season as a franchise.
When Payton took over, New Orleans was still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. The team he inherited went 3-13 in the previous season, playing its “home” games in New Jersey, Baton Rouge and San Antonio.
But Payton immediately altered the Saints’ trajectory by hitting a moonshot in his first months on the job. His first and most important win was convincing then-free agent quarterback Drew Brees to sign in New Orleans, one of the all-time great moves in NFL free agency. Payton’s first team went 10-6 and advanced to the NFC championship game, and three years later, New Orleans celebrated a Super Bowl title.
The win in Super Bowl XLIV represented the best of Payton in many ways, including the defining play-call of his career. There are a great many snippets of coaching brilliance from Payton’s 258 games as Saints coach, but none more perfectly encapsulates his brash genius than the “Ambush” onside kick call to start the second half. The Saints were trailing 10-6 at the time. They went on to win 31-17.
Payton spent 15 seasons patrolling the Saints sidelines, and he finished with a winning record in 10 of them. He never coached a team that went worse than 7-9. In the 39 seasons of Saints football before Payton’s arrival, the Saints had just seven winning seasons. They went 6-10 or worse 20 times.
As consistently excellent as the Saints have been under Payton, his tenure has served as an example of just how hard it is to win it all in the NFL. He won that Super Bowl in his fourth season — but a second title eluded him in the ensuing 11 years, often in stranger-than-fiction fashion.
His 2011 team went 13-3 and featured one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, but the Saints lost in the divisional round of the playoffs when 49ers quarterback Alex Smith found tight end Vernon Davis in the end zone for the go-ahead score with nine seconds remaining, handing the Saints a 36-32 loss.
Some of the most painful losses live on in football lore, with nicknames that cement a person’s consciousness in time and place. “Beast Quake,” “the Minneapolis Miracle,” “the New Orleans No-Call.” Many of those losses were jammed into the final years of Payton’s time in New Orleans.
From 2017-20, Payton’s Saints teams won more games (49) than any other team, yet they had nothing but brutal misery to show for it at the end: A last-second missed tackle; an overtime loss in the NFC title game after an egregious officiating blunder; an overtime loss in which they did not touch the ball in the extra period; a loss to the eventual champion Buccaneers in Brees’ final game, sorrowfully played in a pandemic year in a mostly empty stadium.
Was it all that heartbreak, then, that made Payton want to walk away? Or was it the mighty test of a 2021 season he and the rest of the team just endured?
If this last season showed the true depth of Payton’s brilliance as a coach, it also appeared to exact a massive toll on him. Every week, it seemed, offered a new and terrible problem that needed a solution before game day even arrived.
Despite the fact that his team spent about a month displaced in Texas after Hurricane Ida wrecked New Orleans’ infrastructure, despite the fact that his team started four different quarterbacks and an NFL-record 58 players overall, despite several different COVID outbreaks — including one that sidelined Payton for a game — his Saints finished 9-8 and narrowly missed making the playoffs.
As a coach, Payton will be remembered as a fierce competitor who talked trash from the sidelines, and as a master motivator who could not only find the right buttons but instinctively knew how hard to push them.
But chiefly, Payton will be remembered as one of the great football minds of his time, an offensive maestro whose teams flew at the leading edge of innovation.
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