A New Era Begins

New Saints head coach has a big job ahead of him
Chris

Illustration by Paddy Mills

Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football.


 

The NFL’s 2022 League Year officially kicks off March 16 at 3 p.m., New Orleans time, but the city’s beloved Saints have already been working diligently on building for the coming season.

In late January, Head Coach Sean Payton surprisingly announced he was stepping away from the team after 16 years at the helm (including the 2012 season, when he was suspended for running a bounty program). In that time, he helped to completely transform the franchise. Since the team began play in 1967, only two Saints head coaches have posted a winning record — Payton (152-89) and Jim Mora (94-81) and only two have won playoff games — Payton won nine, Jim Haslett won one. Payton (7), Mora (1) and Haslett (1) are the only coaches to lead the Saints to division titles. Payton stands alone as the only coach to take the team to the NFC Championship (1-2) and the Super Bowl (1-0).

At his retirement press conference, Payton, 58, admitted he considered retiring after the 2020 season, the year quarterback Drew Brees retired, but he decided to stick around for another year. Now, he said he is interested in possibly becoming a network TV analyst, but coaching in 2022 is “not where my heart is right now.” Still, he added that “retirement is not the right word” for his situation. Within days of his announcement, he said two teams contacted him to see if he would return to the sideline.

While there is speculation that he will coach again — many believe the Dallas Cowboys are the likeliest destination — he has three years remaining on his contract with the Saints. The team would have to agree to trade him if he chooses to coach before the 2025 season and would receive compensation if he goes to another team. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted Oakland Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden 20 years ago, they gave up their 2002 and 2003 first-round draft picks, 2002 and 2004 second-round draft picks, and $8 million in cash.

Saints Owner Gayle Benson, Team President Dennis Lauscha, and General Manager Mickey Loomis immediately began identifying candidates to replace Payton. The Saints were among nine NFL teams – almost a third of the league — looking for a new head coach for the coming season. The team looked at nine potential replacements and interviewed seven, including Defensive Coordinator Dennis Allen, Special Teams Coordinator Darren Rizzi, former head coaches Brian Flores (Dolphins) and Doug Pederson (Eagles), Kansas City Chiefs Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Lions Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn, and Bills Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll. Interestingly, Saints Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr., and Buccaneers Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich declined opportunities to interview.

The Saints like consistency and promoted Allen, who will have to hit the ground running. The Saints finished the 2021 season ranked No. 28 in total offense (304.5 yards/game) and No. 19 in points per game (21.4) and No. 7 in total defense (318.2 yards/game) and No. 4 in points/game (19.7). Resurrecting the offense will be a top priority.

The team has to figure out who will play quarterback this year. Without Payton, talk of the high-profile QBs, including Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson — who reportedly showed interest in coming to New Orleans — has gone quiet. There is talk that 2021 starting QB Jameis Winston, who suffered a torn ACL and damaged MCL in his left knee in Week 8, may go back to Tampa after Tom Brady announced his retirement after two years with the Bucs. It will be interesting to see how the team, which is more than $70 million over the salary cap addresses the position.

Additionally, Allen will have to deal with the potential repercussions of running back Alvin Kamara’s arrest after the Pro Bowl. Arguably the face of the franchise, the 26-year-old Kamara was booked for alleged battery resulting in substantial bodily harm from a fight inside a Las Vegas club the night before the all-star game.

If that weren’t enough, the Saints only have two wide receivers under contract — Michael Thomas and Marquez Callaway. Thomas led the league in receptions in both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and led the league in yardage in the 2019 season. But the budding star suffered an ankle injury Week 1 of the 2020 season. He returned for the Saints two-game playoff run, but the lingering injury forced him to miss the entire 2021 regular season.

The team will look to again add potential starters and depth in the draft and free agency. The Scouting Combine will take place March 1-7. Free agency begins on March 16. The Saints will be able to start offseason workouts April 4, and the draft will be held April 28-30.