Sean Payton: The Grass isn't always Greener

It is tradition now that any marquee player or coach, once there is a sense that he might be available, is linked to the Dallas Cowboys. Despite the fact that Jerry Jones has not had as many "splash" signings recently as the media might have us believe, that's just the way it is. When word came out that Sean Payton's contract was voided by the NFL, it was inevitable that he would be linked to the Cowboys. Making the argument even stronger was the fact that Payton was once on the Cowboys' coaching staff, and he has a residence in the area. Reading the comments in many BtB posts, I have been struck by how many people feel that it would be a great move to sign Payton, if at all possible. It makes sense, right? Payton is a Super Bowl winning coach. His teams have been competitive. He's the miracle elixir. Right? Well, let's take a moment to think about it.

First, I am a fan of Sean Payton. He seems like a strong coach who inspires his team and produces strong play from his teams. His onside kick to begin the 2nd half of the Super Bowl against the Colts was inspired. It was a gutsy and creative call.

Second, let's assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that New Orleans is not able to resign Payton and he becomes available, because, clearly, there is no use in even having the conversation if he is not available.

Now, let's examine some evidence.

One of the first things to consider, is that no coach has won a Super Bowl with 2 different teams. Five coaches have taken two different teams to the big game.

  1. Don Shula - Colts & Dolphins
  2. Bill Parcells - Giants & Patriots
  3. Dick Vermeil - Eagles & Rams
  4. Dan Reeves - Broncos & Falcons
  5. Mike Holmgren - Packers & Seahawks

Okay, well, history suggests that it is quite difficult to win a Super Bowl with 2 teams. It also tells us that it is very difficult to even get to another Super Bowl, as only 5 coaches have done it, and the NFL is filled with coaches that have moved from one team to another. Several coaches have won multiple Super Bowls with the same team, but there seems to be something difficult about doing it with 2 different teams. Although, because it has never happened before, does not mean that it will never happen.

Next, we all know that Sean Payton is an elite coach right? Well, let's look at his record.

2006 - 10-6

2007 - 7-9

2008 - 8-8

2009 - 13-3*

2010 - 11-5

2011 - 13-3

Overall - 62-34 (.646)

*(Won Super Bowl)

Playoff record? 5-3

Okay, that's pretty good stuff. Nice coaching record. Let's look at the incumbent.

2010 - 5-3

2011 - 8-8

2012 - 7-6

Overall - 19-17 (.528)

Well, clearly Payton's record is better. But hold on, let's actually take a look at each coach's first 3 seasons. Garrett is at .528, after taking over mid-season, (and noting that this season is not complete). Payton was at .521. What?! Garrett actually has a better record over his first 3 seasons?! (This could all change in the next 3 weeks, of course). The most signficant difference in the records is that Payton did go to the playoffs during his first 3 seasons, (his first actually), and Garrett has not yet done that. He could this season, but it's a tough road forward.

What I do hope to point out though, is that Payton took time to get to a Super Bowl. His last 3 seasons have featured very strong records, but it did not happen overnight. Payton had a losing season in his 2nd season, and was at .500 in his 3rd season. What if the team lost patience with him and axed him after that 8-8 season in 2008?

Next, let's look at Payton's playoff performances, since that is a major strength that he has over Garrett. After all, Garrett hasn't even gotten his team there. In 2006, Payton's first season, he went 10-6, won a divisional playoff game, and then lost to the Bears in the NFC Championship game. Pretty good stuff though. In his first season he took his team to the NFC Championship game. His team missed the playoffs for the next two seasons, and then in 2009 went 13-3 during the regular season, and 3-0 en route to a Super Bowl victory. Stellar work. What happened next?

In 2010 the Saints went 11-5, but went 0-1 in the playoffs. What's troubling is the quality of that 0-1 playoff performance. The team lost to the 7-9 Seahawks. That's right. A team with a losing record won it's division and made the playoffs, and then beat an 11-5 team. The game was symbolized by Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard TD run against a hapless Saints defense in which at least 5, if not more, defenders missed tackles against the hard-running Lynch. Let's give credit to Lynch, he's great at breaking tackles, but the Payton-led team looked atrocious defensively. The next season, 2011, the team went an impressive 13-3, but went 1-1 in the playoffs. They lost to the SF 49ers and there's not too much shame in that, as the 49ers are a very strong team. But it's how they lost. 36-32. They let the 49ers offense score 36 points, and they let Alex Smith look like Joe Montana.

The concern is this, Payton has coached exceptionally strong offenses, but he has also coached exceptionally weak defenses. Imagine if a Dallas coach lost 2 playoff games in the fashion that Payton lost his last 2. Dallas fans and media would be calling for his head. In 2009, his opportune defense utilized turnovers to mask weakness in the amount of yardage they gave up. But it worked and he won a Super Bowl. Since that time, the Saints defense has been a very significant weakness on his teams, and cost them two playoff losses. Not only that, but this is the coach that hired Gregg Williams, who implemented a bounty system in which players were rewarded for injuring players. This happened on Payton's watch.

Ultimately, the recent playoff losses leave a bad taste in my mouth. Neglect of his defense has been his team's Achilles heel, and it has cost them.

One last point I want to raise. The Payton-led Saints have consistently had quality offensive lines. The Cowboys have a poor offensive line. If Payton's success is primarily on offense, and we can argue that that success is linked to the offensive line, would his strength be able to be utilized in Dallas? Of course, it may be Payton that coached up the o-line to his success, so perhaps he's the perfect coach for Dallas. I can say that Callahan is widely regarded as a great o-line coach, and he has had trouble with the lack of talent on the o-line in Dallas, so it appears likely that Payton would be handicapped in Dallas until the o-line is improved.

I want to be very clear that I do not think that Sean Payton is a bad coach. Rather, my point is to raise questions about his flaws, (and Garrett has his own flaws as well), and to raise questions that are important to ask of a prospective coach. Sometimes, when things aren't going well, it's easy to look at a simple answer: the backup QB, a new coach, etc. The likely answer is much more complicated. The 2012 Dallas Cowboys are over .500, and have had starters miss a very high number of games due to injuries. This team does not quit and plays hard for it's coach. Is that enough, I don't know, but I'm also not convinced that simply bringing Payton in is a miracle answer that will quickly and easily improve this team in a significant way. Personally, I would like to see a draft heavy on offensive and defensive linemen. The Packers/Saints/Patriots model of a strong offense and weak defense, that Payton is a part off, is less attractive to me than the 49ers/Giants model of a strong defensive front-7 and efficient offense, (particularly with the 49ers and their strong o-line).

I welcome any critique of this article, including any facts that I may have inaccurately reported.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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