The most valuable person in the NFL this season has yet to take the field.
Through the first four weeks of 2012, there have been a number of great performances. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt have been MVP-worthy. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has made the Washington Redskins competitive in every game. Running back Adrian Peterson has helped the Minnesota Vikings to a surprising 3-1 start and quarterback Kevin Kolb has come off the bench to help the Arizona Cardinals get to 4-0.
Even the regard for referees (the regular ones) is higher than ever.
But if you're looking for truly the most valuable individual in the league, you won't find him anywhere near a game on Sunday.
Sean Payton's value, sort of like Peyton Manning's last season, has been established in absentia.
At 0-4, the New Orleans Saints are a wreck, a shell of what they are capable of being because of Payton's loss. Sure, the defense is a mess and has been dating back to the 2010 season, when erosion first started to show. New Orleans has allowed at least 27 points in each of the first four games.
And while there was no shame in losing to the Green Bay Packers on the road Sunday, the schedule hasn't been tough. The Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs and Carolina Panthers were all games the Saints should have won. Even a 2-2 record to this point could have been considered an acceptable disappointment.
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But 0-4 is a testimony to one overriding factor: Payton's coaching and administrative brilliance. Or as one NFL source told esteemed colleague Peter King for his Monday column: "Sean was as good as I've seen at putting his foot on the throat of the team when they needed it. This team has no one to put a foot on the throat."
Another NFL team executive went even further on Monday night.
"When you really think about the whole organization and where it was for so long, where it got to and where it is today, Sean might be the most valuable non-player in the league," the executive said. "He's not a better coach than [Bill] Belichick, but Belichick has [owner] Bob Kraft. Sean has won in New Orleans without a great owner."
In fact, there are quite a few people around the league who are worried that New Orleans' regression this season is going to be further fuel for Payton's considerable ego. As engaging as Payton can be, he also has a control-freak side that makes him downright combative. He has called reporters to complain about stories or played manipulative games with them when he feels like it.
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That said, Payton's force of will and overarching organizational skills have brought the Saints to a place the franchise had only dreamed about before. And they got there in the post-Katrina aftermath, a time when many people (yours truly included) thought the team was best off moving.
Payton's drive not only overcame those obstacles, it has overcome owner Tom Benson's penurious ways. If you want a perfect example of how shortsighted Benson can be when it comes to money, look at his two biggest spending moves of this year.
First, Benson played contract games with quarterback Drew Brees. Essentially, Benson forced the best player in team history to wait until July to get a new contract. As a result, Brees wasn't around the team at all in the offseason. Looking back, that was critical time lost while Payton was already gone. Yeah, Benson and the Saints might have saved $3 million or $4 million over the length of Bree's five-year contract. But was it worth letting the team getting off to a 0-4 start that might cost it a playoff chance?
That answer is obvious.
Second, look at what Benson did after buying the NBA's New Orleans Hornets. He didn't hire a basketball guy to run the team, he put Saints general manager Mickey Loomis in charge. Yeah, Loomis played a little college basketball once upon a time, but what are his real qualifications for an NBA front-office job?
Loomis has an accounting degree. His ability to save Benson money is the reason Loomis has lasted so long in New Orleans. It's not because Loomis has some singular brilliance when it comes to making a team win.
All of that talent resides with Payton, who is spending this offseason coaching his son's youth football team, watching the Saints from afar and dealing with his pending divorce.
The truly interesting question for Payton is what will happen when he returns? He lost $8 million this year because of his suspension as a result of the team's bounty scandal and is signed through 2015 campaign. It's unclear what impact the suspension has on Payton's contract. With NFL players, their contracts "toll" if they miss a season, meaning that if they have four years remaining on a deal, they still have four years remaining after the suspension. It's as if there was a timeout taken in the middle of the contract.
Coach contracts aren't uniformly managed the same way because there is no collective bargaining agreement between coaches and the league. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello and Saints spokesman Greg Bensel both declined to discuss the issue.
Moreover, Payton did technically work part of this year already, serving as coach up until the draft. A call to Payton's agent, Don Yee, was not immediately returned. However, another agent who represents several coaches said he has never even discussed the issue of a coach suspension or an ethics clause when negotiating a contract for a coach.
"It has truly never been an issue," the agent said. "I'm sure there is some type of ethics language that you would have in any contract, but it's not like when you have a player and the team wants all sorts of safeguards."
All of that is, of course, beside the point. The ultimate issue is that Payton's value has never been more clearly defined than right now. Even more than the halcyon days after winning the Super Bowl.
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