Where will Sean Payton coach in 2023?
Arizona? LA? Houston? Which landing spot makes the most sense for the league's most coveted coaching candidate?
Sean Payton is on his way back to coaching. And he will reportedly bring with him an Expandables-style All-Star cast of coachings great and good. We’re talking *Wrath of Khan voice* FAAANNGGSSS!!! We’re talking Mike Zimmer. We’re talking – if the birdies chirping in the coaching circles are to be believed – Joe Lombardi exiting the Chargers to rejoin his old mentor in his new spot.
(As someone with a foot in both the journalism and coaching ranks, the ‘report’ that Payton would bring the ‘All-Star’ coaching cast with him was hilarious. Who, exactly, was that report for? To bolster Payton’s stock? He’s already the biggest name on the coaching carousel. Was it to boost his price? Did owners think he would turn up on his own, and that a report of Zimmer as associate head coach and Fangio as DC – which will be costly – would push Payton’s individual price? Is the market not as hot as Payton and his agent believed it would be? Strange.)
Where Payton shuffles his troupe is TBD. We do know that he will be the hottest name on the market; he is the one proven commodity (beyond Jim Harbaugh, whose ‘proven-ness’ now feels like it might be from a different era entirely) available on the open market. For the price of a first-round or second or third-round (?) pick, an owner can introduce a champion coach with a big, shiny ring and a proven support staff. If that doesn’t win the press conference, who knows what will? And owners love to win the press conference.
The Broncos, Cardinals, and Texans have already sought – and received – permission to speak to Payton, who’s available to talk to teams officially from the 17th of January. The Panthers and Colts have so far not received permission after filing requests with the Saints.
They won’t be the only options. Payton has been linked with every vacancy that’s open, openings that might be available (the Cowboys), and openings that seem unlikely to be available but that would clearly get stir his football erogenous zones (the Chargers). There’s even scuttlebutt that he could sit this cycle out entirely if a vacancy doesn’t take his fancy. Meaning: if the Chargers or Cowboys jobs don’t come open, most likely. Is anyone more interested in the result of the Bucs-Cowboys this weekend than Payton?
Complicating matters ever so slightly: Tom Brady. Brian Flores’ lawsuit scuppered a Payton-Brady collaboration in Miami last offseason. Brady will be a free agent again this offseason. He will pack up his luggage and move wherever he pleases without the complications of a trade. He will be 46-years old. He hasn’t played to his typical lofty standards this season, even with tricky extenuating circumstances. But if Brady does continue to play, he will have no shortage of suitors; owners would fall over themselves to unveil the Payton-Brady one-two punch.
But it’s tough to find a spot that works for Payton and Brady. Payton knows as much. “There’s a good chance if we work together, it’ll be with FOX,” Payton said on Sunday.
The spots that make sense for Brady (San Francisco, Miami, Las Vegas), make sense because of the head coach currently on the payroll, either because of their personal relationship with Brady or because of the offense they run. Would Brady be willing to move to a worse team, one that looks unattractive right now (Carolina, say) in order to team up with Payton? What about a return for Payton to New Orleans, with Brady slotting into the role vacated by Drew Brees? And then there’s the Dethcon one, Days Of Our Lives scenario: The Patriots pushing out Bill Belichick and bringing Brady back with a new, future HOFer as his head coach/partner. Maybe in the NBA; the NFL is too self-serious.
Seriously, though. Can you find the landing spot that makes sense for both? You know what makes more sense than uprooting to Carolina or New Orleans (with a brutal cap sheet)? Hanging around in Tampa – where Brady’s complicated family life is settled – and bringing Payton in to replace Bowles.
That’s one option. Most likely, Brady and Payton will go their separate ways.
It’s rare that one coach holds such power over the coaching carousel. Teams have usually ID’d the style of coach they want – the young, hotshot candidate; the cagey veteran – and that typically runs opposite to what went before (shifting from offense to defense… or vice versa… changing from the schematic guru to the CEO type). Payton is the rare coach who fills all the roles, the schematic wizard who runs the program; the offensive mastermind bringing the defensive maestro along with him for the ride.
Let’s slide on some warm slippers, take a glass of warm cup of cocoa, and put ourselves in Payton’s position. You have the entire list of available jobs in front of you; you even have some opportunities that might not be open to anyone else, owners letting a coach go because you indicate you’d take the job. Which are you taking?
Here are how the odds currently look, courtesy of Bovada:
Arizona Cardinals, +250
The Cardinals are favorites to acquire Payton’s services… for reasons. There are some benefits to the Cardinals gig: They’re ready for a full-scale reboot; there is, quarterback aside, essentially a blank canvas; there’s a GM vacuum, which would allow Payton to secure personnel responsibilities, either picking the groceries himself or bringing along a trusted lieutenant as GM; Payton would walk into the building with a settled quarterback situation.
And that’s what this comes down to: How do you value Kyler Murray? Is he a top-ten, carry-us-to-the-playoffs-when-healthy quarterback? Is he a top-12/15 guy who can push himself into the top-five in short bursts? And how will his skills age?
It’s been a brutal year for Murray, who’s oscillated between moments of delight and dismay ever since tying himself to the Cardinals for the long-term.
For the season, Murray finished 22nd in DYAR, 22nd in DVOA, and 24th in the RBSDM composite. More concerning: There was a lack of growth in his game, even as the offense contorted around him. The idea of Kliff Kingsbury as an all-Air Raid, all-the-time coach is outdated. Kingsbury tried to evolve the Cardinals' offense away from the spread-from-the-gun, tempo-based offense that he first installed in Arizona. The Cardinals diversified their concepts; Kingsbury added a ton of formations; he messed around with personnel groupings. He installed different, fresh concepts, featuring some of the best one-off designs of any offense in the league on a weekly basis. But there was rarely, if ever, a cohesive feel. And it’s notable that Murray’s finest work still came when the Cardinals ran more of the traditional Kingsbury trappings.
We’ve seen how that looks for an entire season; opposing defenses eventually catch up. Relying too much on Murray as a freelancing menace works in the short-term, but it’s tough to build a sustainable group around that long-term.
Whoever takes the Cardinals' job will be wedded to Murray. And it’s up to them to figure out whether they can squeeze an extra five percent out of Murray as a progression-based thrower from the pocket, something he will need to develop as his athleticism begins to wade. Kingsbury tried; it didn’t work. Murray has shown development throughout his career – last season, he conquered the blitz. But all players have a ceiling. Perhaps Murray’s natural instinct to bail out of the pocket and freelance and to create on his own is an indelible part of his game – the kind of skill that can help a bozo coach wrack up wins but can cost those who demand the quarterback play on-time and in-rhythm. Murray’s average depth of target his a career low in 2022 (6.3) as he bounced between fleeing the pocket before pressure arrived or getting rid of the ball earlier and earlier in the rep – in part because DeAndre Hopkins missed time; in part because Murray was happy to get rid of it and move on with the game. You could feel the lack of faith in the structure seeping through the screen.
Beyond Murray, the bulk of Arizona’s skill position spots are locked into deals at least for 2023 – and some beyond that. Any coach coming in looking to make wholesale changes, stylistically, to the offense will have to factor in how much of the team’s precious resources are already allocated to a group that is aging. DeAndre Hopkins, the one skill player a coach would want to inherit (though not his contract), has played his last down for the Cardinals.
And that’s where this gets tough. Hand Kyler Murray to Payton with a blank canvas and you’re cooking with gas over the short-term. With Kyler still at the apex of his athleticism, you’re probably looking at two years of supernova play. The idea of fusing some of the bombs away approach of the peak Payton-Saints years with some quarterback movement and Murray’s off-beat excellent sounds like a dynamic, explosive, efficient offense waiting to happen. Payton was positively giddy when he covered Murray at the combine in a segment on NFL Network. You could see the cogs in his head turning: Holy shit, what if I took our base, break-zones-apart model and imparted them to one of the four best athletes in the league? Drew Brees with *mobility* are you kiddin’ me?!?!?
But Payton wouldn’t just be inheriting Murray. He’d be inheriting Zach Ertz and James Conner and Hollywood Brown and a lingering Bobby Anderson question and an offensive line in dire need of some offseason surgery. Oh, and a defense that would need a complete overhaul to align with Fangio-ism, if indeed Fangio joins Payton in Arizona.
It’s not the easiest sell. But there is a sell. Few of the other open coaching spots have as much potential for an immediate return on investment as the Cardinals. There’s room to maneuver around the cap. In Murray, Payton would walk into the building with a quarterback with untapped potential who could pilot a top-10 group in his first year, and there aren’t a whole lot of those roles liable to come open across the league.
With how poor Murray was in 2022 and all the commotion around his contract, we are in danger of forgetting what a prodigious talent he is – and the player he can be, now. He is, obviously, an uber-athlete. He doesn’t turn the ball over. He doesn’t take sacks – his 5.7% sack percentage in 2023 is outstanding for a mobile quarterback. He can hit explosive shots down the field. Murray has elevated his game against two-deep safety looks in an era where that’s less a desire and more a demand; he finished sandwiched between Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow in on-target throws versus two-deep safeties in 2022.
The downsides are also clear: he’s small, his game might not age well, he has an aversion to playing from under center which limits some of the potential of the offense, yadda, yadda. And there are legitimate concerns about his ability to push the ball vertically against more complicated defenses that move and disguise on the back end – Murray wracks up vertical yards and scores throwing to open and open-ish receivers; he is not a precise downfield thrower, like a Jalen Hurts, who engineers deep shots irrespective of the coverage.
But the upside – the feel for the position – is unquestioned. He can do things, physically, only a handful of QBs walking Planet Earth can even consider. He’s shown a willingness to grow and develop – perhaps being pushed by a new coach, someone outside of his comfort zone, can unlock a new level entirely. I’d be willing to bet that the Murray career arc remains on track (he continues to grow his game over the next three seasons before his athleticism wanes; things get ugly on the back end of his contract).
But Murray aside, this is one of the least talented rosters in the NFL. The one plus: aside from Murray, it’s a Barron roster that can be crafted in a new image. Wedding himself to a GM he trusts is, according to the man himself, important to Payton. Most likely, Jeff Ireland, the former Dolphins GM and current assistant GM in New Orleans, will follow Payton to any spot with a GM vacancy. Heading to Arizona would give Payton a chance to build an operation in a new image with a trusted advisor, and there aren’t a whole load of other spots without meddlesome owners that can offer that.
Ultimately, whether Payton is interested in the Cardinals gig or not will come down to whether he’s thinking short-term or long-term. If he’s looking for a get-in, get-out, compete-for-a-Super-Bowl-within-three-years-and-leave fling, the Cardinals make plenty of sense. If he’s looking for something beyond three seasons, to hang around in coaching for the next eight-to-ten years, to build something, then he’s probably best looking elsewhere.
Denver Broncos, +400
Why would Sean Payton be interested in this position? Can someone explain this to me like I’m five?
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