The 2022 NFL regular season has two weeks left, which means two things: Black Monday is approaching and the Sean Payton Sweepstakes is about to begin.
The former New Orleans Saints head coach is expected to be the hottest prospect on the coaching market. He, and potentially University of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, will top the wish list of every NFL owner with a vacant head coaching opening.
In my opinion, Payton’s top priorities in seeking a job will be, in order: functional ownership and management; a roster built or prepared to win; financial compensation; potential at the quarterback position; and geographic location.
Here’s how I see the landscape for his services as the NFL offseason nears:
Preferred Landing Spots
Cowboys: Dallas has always had an appeal for Payton. He coached there from 2003 to 2005 and is familiar with deep-pocketed owners Jerry and Stephen Jones. More importantly, the team is built to win. With veteran quarterback Dak Prescott and a Top 10 defense, the Cowboys would be viable Super Bowl contenders annually with Payton at the helm. The Cowboys have everything Payton wants in his next head coaching gig. There’s one problem: The job probably won’t open. Mike McCarthy is 23-9 the past two seasons and has resurrected the Cowboys to their status among the league’s elite teams.
Chargers: Quarterback Justin Herbert alone makes this an attractive option but there are other reasons this job makes sense. Payton has lived in the Los Angeles area for much of the offseason while working as an NFL analyst at Fox Sports, and his daughter, Meghan, lives in the area. Like the Cowboys, though, the Chargers job is unlikely to open. The Chargers clinched their first playoff berth in four years on Monday night and are likely to post a double-digit-win season for only the second time in the past 13 years. Head coach Brandon Staley’s job appears safe for now.
Obviously Sean Payton is a top dog. My understanding right now is Payton has a high affinity for the Chargers & Cowboys, w/t Cardinals being a consideration too, if jobs become available. When Denver calls, I expect him to listen, although he historically prefers a strong link to GM.
— JosinaAnderson (@JosinaAnderson) December 26, 2022
Saints: From everything that I’ve been able to gather, Dennis Allen’s job is safe. Despite the disappointing season, management and ownership are fully behind him returning as head coach next year. Allen is in the first year of a four-year deal he signed in February. Cutting him loose after one season would be cost-prohibitive and out of character for general manager Mickey Loomis and owner Gayle Benson. Loomis and Benson are both loyal to Allen. While the season hasn’t turned out like anyone expected, they’re happy with the pluck the team has exhibited down the stretch. While many fans would like to see Payton return to the sidelines next year, it’s not going to happen in NOLA — at least not in 2023, anyway.
Potential Landing Spots
Panthers: Interim head coach Steve Wilks has guided the Panthers to a 5-5 record since owner David Tepper fired Matt Rhule in Week 6 and will certainly receive strong consideration for the permanent job. But Tepper is one of the richest owners in the league and is wired to compete at a high level. He will undoubtedly make a run at Payton. That said, he will have hurdles to overcome. Being in the same division, he would pay a premium in compensation to the Saints for Payton’s services. Would Loomis be willing to hand deliver a Hall of Fame coach to a division rival?
colts: Indy has an opening after moving on from Frank Reich, and owner Jim Irsay previously made a back-channel pitch for Sean Payton back in 2016, so there’s precedent here. Payton could return to his Midwest roots and resurrect an organization that has lost its way since Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement three years ago. The Colts have a solid salary cap situation, and their quarterback spot is wide open as they are expected to move on from Matt Ryan this offseason. Irsay doesn’t have the best reputation in league circles, but the club has an enviable track record of success with 18 playoff appearances in the past 28 seasons.
Broncos: Denver fired Nathaniel Hackett after less than one season, and team officials have expressed interest in Payton through back channels. The club is a bit of a mystery because of new ownership but Rob Walton owns some of the deepest pockets in the NFL, so meeting the eight-figure salary it will take to land Payton shouldn’t be an issue. The biggest hurdle here is Russell Wilson’s subpar play and onerous five-year, $242.5 million contract, which cost the club its first- and second-round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft. Payton would be stuck with Wilson for the foreseeable future and the roster isn’t all that great around him. At best, Denver appears to be a few years away from playoff contention.
— Good Morning Football (@gmfb) December 27, 2022
Cardinals: Multiple reports have linked Payton to Arizona, but my intel says its much lower down the list than is being widely reported. Arizona has one of the least attractive ownership situations in the league and a mess of a quarterback situation. Payton isn’t afraid of a challenge. He rebuilt a couple of times in New Orleans. But he would obviously need the means and quarterback to pull it off, and I’m not sure the Cardinals have either.
Texans: Predictably, Lovie Smith is on the hot seat after his team’s 2-12-1 campaign. Like Arizona, the Texans have a history of dysfunctional leadership that would be a major hindrance in luring Payton to turn. Their quarterback situation isn’t bad with a young, cheap Davis Mills at the helm and plenty of cap room to upgrade at the position if desired. What’s more, the club has a bevy of high draft picks to get good quickly. It’s debatable whether that’s enough to overcome the historic incompetence at the top of the organization.
Ones to watch…
Titans: Mike Vrabel is considered one of the top coaches in the NFL, so it would be a surprise if he were to move on or be let go. But if the job were to open, it might hold interest for Payton. Ownership is considered a positive, and the club has a $2.1 billion stadium project in line for 2026. The Titans have a messy cap situation but can get out from under Ryan Tannehill’s contract after this season, which would clear the way for Payton to bring in a veteran free agent. There are worse places to live than Nashville, which is close to the West Virginia roots of Payton’s wife, Skylene Montgomery.
Seahawks: There’s a surprise opening almost every NFL offseason, and this would be one to watch if Pete Carroll elected to step down. The Seahawks have quality ownership and a roster brimming with young talent. What’s more, they have a wide-open quarterback situation with Geno Smith in the final year of his contract and loads of resources to work with. For all these reasons, Carroll will almost certainly return for another year on the sidelines. But if he doesn’t, Payton would surely take a long look at the opening. He has a house in the Pacific Northwest, and the Seahawks have a history of success.
Summary: Payton definitely wants to coach next season. He’s spent enough time golfing and traveling to recharge his batteries. By all accounts, he’s ready and eager to return to the sidelines. But he won’t just take a job to take a job. He’s enjoying his media work and has the luxury to be choosy about his next destination. It would not be a surprise to see him sit out another year if no attractive jobs open this offseason.