NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton announced that he is stepping away as the Saints head coach at a Tuesday afternoon press conference where he waxed poetic and talked about his fond memories of being the coach here and admittedly fought back tears.
"I Googled about how not to cry during a press conference," he said. "It was drink a lot of water (Payton paused the presser several times to take a swig of water) and yawn. I've tried not to yawn."
There had been widespread speculation that Payton may not be returning to the Saints and of what his future would be.
"I don't know what's next," said Payton. "That might be coaching at some point, but probably not this year. That's not where my heart is... I don't know what's next and it kind of feels good."
Payton looked back at his start in 2006 and he pledged to answer every single question he was asked by the media.
“Sean came to New Orleans during what was a difficult time for our organization, as well as the entire Gulf South region following Hurricane Katrina. Under his leadership, Sean helped lead this football team to new heights," Saints Owner Gayle Benson said.
He said that the '06 team that he took to the NFC Championship against the Bears is one of his favorite teams.
"We've had better teams, but none was tougher," he said.
WWL-TV Sports Director Doug Mouton said that Payton wanted time away after a very tough 2021 season that saw him play his first season without future Hall-of-Famer Drew Brees and suffer an incredible amount of injuries that caused the team to play at a weakened status most of the season.
"It is my understanding that it won't be to take another job in the NFL," Mouton said. "This was the greatest era of Saints football."
Speculation on a replacement for Payton will center on defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who manned the sideline when Payton was out for a game due to COVID protocols and who is largely credited with the team's defensive surge the past few years.
Allen was set to interview for some head coaching jobs and perhaps the Saints sensed some urgency in not letting Allen get away if Payton decided not to return.
"This is a franchise-altering day for the Saints," said Underhill, who said that Payton would be a hot commodity by broadcast networks if he wants to move to the broadcast booth.
Sean Payton came to the New Orleans Saints in 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina had waylaid the city and forced its professional football team to play all of its home games away from New Orleans.
He had an immediate impact. His swagger and confidence paid immediate dividends with the team going to the NFC Championship Game his very first season in 2006.
"They (Payton and Brees) made New Orleans feel proud again, alive again after Katrina," Mouton said. "I will look back on his era with a 100 percent positive feeling."
Two fairly average seasons followed, but the offense was beginning to shape into the passing game first mentality that would lead to the 2009 season, a 13-0 start and a Super Bowl Championship, something many fans in the city thought was an impossible dream.
With Drew Brees displaying pinpoint accuracy, Payton fielded perhaps his finest team in 2011, but a heartbreaking loss on the road in San Francisco prevented them from eventually reaching a second Super Bowl.
Payton had to sit out the 2012 season after the NFL investigated ‘bounty gate,’ an alleged rewarding of players who put hard hits on opposing players. Having it come at the height of backlash on the league for player safety, specifically in the form of concussions and how they were treated, Payton had to sit out.
He led them back to the playoffs in 2013 before missing them in three consecutive 7-win seasons. The team had a rebirth in 2017 after several productive drafts and no team had a better winning percentage over a four-year run that saw heartbreaking losses prevent them from reaching another Super Bowl.
A miraculous pass with no time remaining sent them down to defeat against Minnesota and then a terrible non-call kept them out of the 2020 Super Bowl the following year.
Payton had his toughest season yet in 2021. An ultra-talented team suffered an incredible number of injuries, including its two top quarterbacks. They were 5-2 when Jameis Winston got hurt. They lost five straight games but cobbled together a finish to get to 9-8, one game short of a playoff spot.
It was a team that beat the top two seeds in the NFC three times, but one which couldn’t overcome the losses off the field to prevent them on the field.
Payton has a 152-89 overall record and, despite being thought smug and arrogant by other teams and their fan bases, few wouldn’t want him on their sideline.