Sean Payton steps down as Saints head coach, but leaves door open for future jobs

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·NFL columnist
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After 16 seasons as head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Sean Payton is stepping down.

The Super Bowl-winning coach cited a need for a change and said his heart wasn’t in it for next season, although he didn’t rule out a return to coaching in the future.

“I still have a vision for doing things in football, and I’ll be honest with you, that might be coaching again at some point,” Payton said. “I don't think it’s this year. I think maybe in the future, but that’s not where my heart is right now. It’s not at all.”

Payton informed Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and owner Gayle Benson of the decision on Monday, following extended talks with both over the last few weeks and then a short break to get away and consider his future. A team source told Yahoo Sports that defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is the frontrunner to replace Payton and that a new coach could be installed as early as this week.

Regardless of the Saints’ next move, the 58-year old Payton, who is 161-97 as Saints coach, remains under contract with the team through 2024 and New Orleans would be entitled to seek trade compensation if another team were to offer him a head coaching job.

In a lengthy news conference with tears in his eyes, Payton reminisced about his 16 years and some of the decisions that brought the franchise to its peak of sustained success. He also made it clear how difficult 2021 was, leaving him desiring a break. He noted that ownership offered him the opportunity to step away from the franchise until the start of training camp, but Payton said he felt taking a year off was necessary.

The development caps a roller-coaster season for New Orleans, which started the 2021 season playing its first home game in Jacksonville due to complications from Hurricane Ida. The Saints ultimately didn’t play a home game in New Orleans until October, then struggled all season at quarterback following the retirement of Drew Brees — losing starter James Winston to a knee injury in November and then juggling the position between Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill. New Orleans also worked through a tense ankle surgery and rehabilitation rift with star wideout Michael Thomas, who ultimately missed the entire season.

Sean Payton announced he's stepping away as New Orleans Saints head coach on Tuesday. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
Sean Payton announced he's stepping away as New Orleans Saints head coach on Tuesday. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Despite all the struggles, Payton managed to coach the Saints to a 9-8 finish, narrowly missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker with the Philadelphia Eagles. But even with the team exceeding expectations under Payton, there was a sense of uncertainty surrounding him when the season ended.

Like many other Super Bowl coaches who went into television careers (think: Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher), Payton’s future plans will surely become a continual topic across the league. Particularly in Dallas, which has been speculatively linked to Payton for the better part of the past decade. Another coaching job doesn’t appear to be on the front burner for him, but Payton left the door open and his mind could change at any moment. The likelier scenario would be a television job similar to the work he did during his one-year suspension for the Saints' bounty scandal in 2012. Payton specifically said he didn’t want to use the word “retirement” and said a television job would interest him.

“I read the reports and I’ve not spoken to anyone from a media outlet relative to doing television or radio,” Payton said. “Maybe that opportunity arises, but every time I read something that says ‘He’s in line for this job,’ I’ll call my agent, Don [Yee], and I’ll say, ‘Don, did you hear something? Because I’ve not heard anything.’ And that’s OK. I think I’d like to do that — I think I’d be pretty good at it.

“Stepping outside in the cold weather today and being a little uncomfortable professionally, or from a career standpoint, is OK. I don’t like the word ‘retirement.’ … I’ve had some opportunities. I talked to Drew [Brees] about it a little bit last night. I don’t know that part of it that well, but that would be something that would interest me.”

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