The Sean Payton sweepstakes have been in full flow for a few weeks now, yet seemingly little progress has been made towards him making a return to the league. Anyone who uses Twitter will have seen the ever-changing reports, rumours and betting odds associated with the ex-Saints head coach. At one stage, Denver and Russell Wilson were going all in to woo him; the next, Cal McNair and Payton were getting on like a house on fire in Houston. Payton said he likes Kyler Murray in 2019? Done deal to Arizona!
Alas, as of January 25th, the prospect of Payton signing anywhere this offseason looks as slim as ever, and it is looking increasingly likely FOX won’t have to worry about finding a replacement analyst in the next year.
There are multiple contributing factors, the most influential of which is the New Orleans Saints’ asking price. Again, reports and rumours have been wild and contradictory, but demands have ranged anywhere from a two first-round pick, two second-round pick package to one late first round pick. Hardly a light price for any asset.
The other factor at play is Payton himself. He is reportedly seeking a significant amount of organizational control in whichever team he joins. All five teams with head coach vacancies already have a GM. Will those GMs, who are central to the search, want a guy who’s demanding they take a back seat? The owners themselves also have reason to look elsewhere. 25 million reasons, to be exact.
All of this attention and speculation begs the simple question, is Sean Payton worth the asking price? Right now, it appears teams in the market don’t think so.
It’s difficult to place an exact value on a head coach. A starting point for answering the question is to benchmark him against his competitors. Rather than comparing him to the new wave a coaching talent, such as Shanahan, McVay and McDermott, who remain in the early stages of their journeys, let’s look at him next to the other coaches of his era. Bear in mind, by simply being in the same league as the guys I’m about to mention, it automatically makes Payton a very good coach. That is the floor. But where does Payton truly rank in today’s head coaching pecking order?
Payton has had some undeniable success in the NFL, more than the vast majority of coaches could ever dream about. His career win percentage of 62.4% would be good for 7th in the league for current coaches today. 4th, if you only count coaches with five or more seasons under their belt. Consistent displays of offensive excellence spearheaded this success. In 16 years as the Saints head coach, his offence finished outside the top 10 in points per game just three times (and two of those time they finished 11th and 12th).
But head coaches should not be judged solely by their offences. They should be judged on overall team success. So how often did Payton convert those wins into playoff appearances? In New Orleans, Payton brought his team to the playoffs 56% of the time (and yes, I am including the Bounty Gate season in that, tough). This figure is impressive, and signifies a very good coach. But when compared with other long-term coaches of his era, it pales. Mike Tomlin coaches his team to the playoffs 63% of the time. John Harbaugh 67%, Bill Belichick 68%, Mike McCarthy 69%, Pete Carroll 73% and Andy Reid 75%(!?).
All seven of the above mentioned coaches have at least one Lombardi trophy to their name. Elite company indeed. So the next question, how elite? Belichick, Reid, Carroll and Tomlin all have multiple Super Bowl appearances under their belts. Of the three without multiple appearances, Mike McCarthy has the most Conference Championship appearances with four. Harbaugh and Payton are tied on three. It's been 13 years since Payton reached the Super Bowl. That’s the longest drought of all seven coaches.
Also worth noting, while Harbaugh, Carroll and Tomlin have built their resumes in spite of quite a few years of mediocre quarterbacking, Payton’s arguably inferior accomplishments were achieved with a full career of Drew Brees tied to his hip. And that one year without Drew Brees in 2021? The Saints’ offence ranked 19th, worst of the Payton era by quite a margin.
Payton’s resume places him firmly in the upper echelon of NFL coaches. That is inarguable. But, it’s clear that within the group of top quality coaches, he’s at the lower end. When you begin to factor in the younger up-and-coming coaches, how far down does he slide in terms of overall current coach rankings? Naturally, this also means his trade value slides
Past performance aside, here’s another consideration: Sean Payton is 59 years old. That’d make him the 8th oldest coach in the league right now. Four of the seven coaches ahead of him are less than a year older. An obvious question which stems from this: for how long does Payton plan on returning?
Let’s not forget, he only left the Saints one year ago. If he plans on re-retiring soon, the draft capital involved in a potential trade is that much more important. Will Payton be bothered if a team must give up a boatload of future picks to acquire his services if he doesn’t plan on being around long enough to fully experience the negative impact?
The Jon Gruden trade of 21 years ago is frequently cited when trying to pinpoint a value for Payton. A key difference here is that Gruden was 38 years old when this trade was made. He was the hottest name at the time, and the Buccaneers were likely hoping for a 20+ year return on that investment. Teams will not invest as heavily for what could wind up being a four year return.
A past Buccaneers coaching trade that’s more comparable was the one for 66 year-old Bruce Arians, where the Bucs and the Cardinals flipped a 6th and 7th round pick. Yes, Payton is worth more than that, but I would argue he is closer to an Arians ballpark than a Gruden ballpark.
The likelihood of a Super Bowl with any coach in a short window is slim, and Payton’s resume, while impressive, is a long way from assuring success in that time. A multiple first round-pick asking price should return a long window with a very good coach, or a short window with an all-time great coach. Payton is the wrong combination of the two.
When you combine Payton’s history of success, his age, and both his and the Saints’ asking price, it begins to become clear why the Payton market has cooled in recent days. He is a very good coach that can help a team for the right price. But is he worth a ton? I wouldn’t pay it.