Rick Cleveland

Forget the Rams. Does Sean Payton even deserve to stay with Saints?

Sun Herald columnist Rick Cleveland believes New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton deserves at least one more season to turn things around.
Sun Herald columnist Rick Cleveland believes New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton deserves at least one more season to turn things around. AP

You are the New Orleans Saints. You have had three straight seasons with seven victories vs. nine defeats. You are under contract to pay your head coach, Sean Payton, $45 million over the next five seasons.

But the Los Angeles Rams — and possibly other teams — reportedly want to talk to Payton about becoming their head coach. It well could be that the Rams want to make a deal to secure Payton.

So, Saints, what do you do?

Here’s what I would do. I first would determine what Payton wants to do. I mean, what he really wants to do. If he wants to coach elsewhere, let him have at it. Because, for $9 million a year, I can find another coach, another really good one.

But if Payton wants to continue to coach the Saints — if he’s all in — then I am, too, at least for one more season.

It may sound silly with the record being the same for the third straight season, but the Saints made progress this season. They did. The makings are there to return to winning ways – and the playoffs – in 2017.

Offensively, Drew Brees has yet to show his age. He threw for more than 5,000 yards this season. He remains as accurate as any quarterback in the sport. That he did not make the Pro Bowl for a 10th time is a miscarriage of justice. He remains capable of delivering a championship. And, yes, his relationship with Payton is one of the biggest arguments for retaining Payton if he’s all in.

But there’s more. The Saints had two 1,000-yard receivers, including rookie Michael Thomas, who in one season has become one of the league’s best. They have a 1,000-yard rusher in Mark Ingram. They have an offensive line that was clearly improved this season.

Defensively? The Saints finished 27th of 32 NFL teams in total defense, which is up from 31st a year ago. But they would have been far better if not for a series of injuries in the secondary. They became much better in their front seven. They played with more purpose under coordinator Dennis Allen. They could make a huge jump next season, particularly if they use their No. 11 draft pick for an impact player on that side of the ball.

Special teams? The Saints became much better after bringing in an additional coach the third week of November.

Kevin O’Dea made a difference, but it was too late. The Saints lost three games earlier in the season because of the inability to make a kick. The Giants beat the Saints 16-13 by returning a blocked field goal for their only touchdown in a 16-13 victory. The Denver Broncos blocked an extra point and returned it for two points in a 25-23 victory. Do the math. Another blocked field goal caused a 10-point swing when the Carolina Panthers beat the visiting Saints 23-20. Change three kicks and 7-9 becomes 10-6. The Detroit Lions got the last-wild card berth at 9-7.

After that loss to Carolinaon Nov. 17, Will Lutz made his last 12 field goals. That would seem a major problem solved heading into the offseason.

On Feb. 7, it will have been seven years since the Saints and Payton claimed the Lombardi Trophy with a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Since then, the Saints have been 11-5, 13-3, 7-9, 11-5, 7-9, 7-9, 7-9.

Ordinarily, four 7-9s in seven years after a Super Bowl would get you fired. Instead, the Saints pay Payton $9 million to coach in hopes he can rekindle the magic of 2009.

My take: One more year.

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday.org) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.

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