|Bill Nichols/Associated Press|
|Jerry Jones and Sean Payton have a relationship that dates back to when Payton was an assistant coach in Dallas.|
In his robust Inside The NFL Notebook below, NFL Network's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):
» Four things he's looking forward to in Week 10.
» An interesting theory on who might be Coach of the Year.
» Why things could get even uglier in Kansas City this weekend.
» And much more, beginning with why the Sean-Payton-to-Cowboys talk has some merit to it ...
But I do know enough to think it's a very real possibility. And that should be plenty to send shivers up the spine of everyone in New Orleans, where the Saints have already endured a horror movie of a calendar year.
Payton's daughter Meghan and son Connor live in the Dallas area. He coached for the Cowboys from 2003 to 2005, and in that time formed a strong and lasting relationship with the deep-pocketed, team-owning Jones family. And according to one person who worked for the Cowboys during that time, Payton "loved coaching and living in Dallas." That's an important quality for those at Valley Ranch, since the franchise is run, covered and followed differently from the NFL's other 31 clubs.
It needs to be said that Jason Garrett, even at 16-16 through 32 games, doesn't necessarily deserve to be among a growing group of NFL head coaches who have landed on the hot seat in midseason. The Cowboys' roster needed changes in 2011, but didn't get them until 2012, and Garrett deserves some time for that transition to take root. I, for one, don't believe Jerry Jones will fire Garrett ... unless something unusual or unforeseen happens.
And if Payton is on the market in early January (and the Cowboys are at home and not in the playoffs), that would qualify. The availability of that kind of coach, in tandem with the age of core players like Tony Romo (32), DeMarcus Ware (30), Jason Witten (30) and Jay Ratliff (31), makes this a very real possibility.
"I could see it happening," one Cowboys source said. "You know the relationship. Jerry really respects [Sean]. To be honest, I think he was hoping that Jason would be what Sean is -- the personality, the creativity. That's who he wanted with Jason, was another Sean."
To be sure, all of this -- precipitated by the news reported by ESPN on Sunday that Payton's contract extension of last fall had been voided by the NFL -- has created an awkward situation.
On one side, you have Jones, who has invested in Garrett being in Dallas, dating back to Garrett's time as a Cowboys player in the 1990s. Jones still believes that, with time, Garrett can fulfill the aforementioned vision and be another Payton. On the other side, you have Payton, who has meant everything to New Orleans and the Saints, and has a good relationship with his boss, owner Tom Benson, and an amazing one with his quarterback, Drew Brees.
Then there's the fact that Garrett and Payton were together for three years, Garrett as a player and Payton as a coach, with the New York Giants in 2000-02.
Account for all that muck, and it's clear it would take a pretty ideal situation to pry Payton from New Orleans or convince Jones to dump Garrett. This might just be it.
"Mesh the personal and the professional," said the first source, who worked for Dallas during Payton's time there, "and I'd say that (Payton would) have more reasons to do it than not."
Of course, it might not be that easy. As another source who handles coaching contracts explained it, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell holds the ultimate authority over whether Payton's deal will expire in January or not. Coaching deals have a provision that adopts NFL's constitution and bylaws, which empower the commissioner to settle contract disputes. That could bring Payton's rocky relationship with Goodell into play.
"Roger could take the position that, 'When I rule on someone acting in a manner that undermines that public confidence and integrity of the game, I want to ensure that ruling doesn't give an unintended benefit to the violator,' " the source said. "This would be a very messy situation, at best. The deck could be stacked against Sean there."
Then there's Payton leaving behind what he's built in New Orleans.
Benson is 85, and I'm told Payton has serious reservations about the succession plan. The eventual one in Dallas would be much more appealing to him, but he does have loyalty to Benson, who gave him his big shot. One of Payton's ex-players said he thinks "the only way it happens is if something happens, health-wise, to Mr. Benson." Cutting the cord with Brees also would be extremely difficult for Payton.
Dallas is different. You don't need to worry about the quarterback. Payton tried to trade for Romo and was shot down by the Cowboys before he and the Saints acquired Brees in 2006. Payton also was, in part, responsible for getting Romo to Dallas in the first place, when the QB was a rookie free agent, and was integral to his development.
Power could be an issue. The first source said, "Power over the 53-man roster? Maybe. But final say on picking players? That may be hard." But Payton could use Bill Parcells, who wrested more control from Jones than any coach has, to grease the skids, and the first source said that if Jones had Payton in his sights, "He'd do just about anything."
We're not at that point yet. The Saints can, and will, try to finish now what they thought was done in September 2011 and lock Payton up long-term. Until then, though, the pressure's on Benson to deliver a deal that would block a franchise-crippling blow. Likewise, the pressure's on Garrett to take the decision out of Jones' hands.
The smart money's still got Payton staying in New Orleans. But at this early juncture, that's no sure thing.
Four things I'll be watching for in Week 10
1) How the New England Patriots deploy their secondary. It might just give us a window into Devin McCourty's future. The former first-round pick has been better at safety than cornerback this season -- the same could be said for last season -- and this week, we might see if the club moves him there permanently. The acquisition of Aqib Talib gives the Patriots that flexibility, and if Steve Gregory and Patrick Chung come back from injuries against the Buffalo Bills, which seems likely, and McCourty stays at safety, it will likely be for good. This is a big deal, because the secondary remains the real weak spot for the reigning AFC champs. As for how Talib will help, one AFC exec said, "He's got No. 2 corner ability. He has talent, but discipline and consistency are issues; he has better athleticism than technique. He moves well, but you never know what you're gonna get. ... But he's got talent and ability; they were weak, and he'll certainly help them." Talib's knuckleheadery is well-documented. He served a suspension for violations of the personal conduct policy in 2010 and is serving a PED suspension now. He'll be back for the Patriots on Nov. 18.
2) How the Tennessee Titans travel. Tennessee owner Bud Adams delivered a harsh warning, through a story by Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean, that folks at all levels of the organization will be "closely evaluated" in the wake of a blowout loss to the Chicago Bears, which pushed the team's mark to 3-6. And CBSSports.com's Mike Freeman quoted an unnamed assistant saying that "everyone is scared." The uneasiness is something the players have sensed, and that has chipped away at their confidence in the staff. Not a good situation. It should be noted that this is the second time Adams has struck this kind of fear into the organization. People thought their jobs were on the line during the Peyton Manning pursuit as well. Maybe it's not fair for coaches and personnel people to have to work in that environment, but Adams is the boss and can do as he pleases; how they react to this latest ultimatum could chart the course of the franchise in January. Adams loves Mike Munchak, who's been a loyal soldier for his franchise as a legendary player, assistant and now head coach, and would probably have a hard time firing him. But Munchak has to prove he can get more out of a team that's lost five games by 20-plus-point margins, and that starts against the Miami Dolphins.
3) Chicago's offensive line blocking Houston. For as much as has gone right for the Bears since their Week 2 loss in Green Bay -- they've won six straight -- it's still hard to shake the image of Clay Matthews and the Packers blowing up their offensive line that night. And that's because the line has continued to have its problems. One way to quantify it: The Bears rank dead last in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play. The biggest issue has come at the tackle position. J'Marcus Webb has had problems, as was expected, on the left side. More surprising have been the issues 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi has had opposite him. Holes like that tend to be blown open for everyone to see when it counts, and that makes this week's matchup with the Houston Texans fascinating. The Texans bring J.J. Watt and a host of complementary pass-rushers. We've seen Jay Cutler's frustration in the past, and the Sunday Night spotlight could shine on that again, if Houston has its way. Or, the Bears could use this challenge to turn a corner. Either way, plenty of eyeballs will be on the one real area of concern on Chicago's roster, particularly with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate on the other side.
4) The unbeaten Atlanta Falcons' swagger. One criticism of Atlanta in recent years has been that while the roster has ascended from a talent standpoint, there might be a lack of edge or nastiness that has cost the team when it matters most. This week could give us a good gauge as to whether or not that's changed, with the renewal of what's become a nasty rivalry between the Falcons and the suddenly resurgent Saints. In 2010, the Saints beat the Falcons at the Georgia Dome and, afterwards, a group of players emerged from the locker room to take a picture on the logo at the 50-yard line. Last year, they cockily repeated the drill, after it had become a subject of discussion during the week. And a few weeks after that, in the rematch at the Superdome, while Payton and Co. were making sure Brees would break Dan Marino's 27-year-old single-season passing record at home, they ran the score up on the Falcons. In all, Atlanta is 2-10 against the Saints since Payton arrived in 2006. This week's a big one. If this season is truly different, it'd be nice to clear this hurdle. It might prove something, too.
1) The Chuck Pagano/Bruce Arians combo deserves Coach of the Year consideration. And, in fact, that was my pick in our NFL.com midseason awards. Here's what Andrew Luck told me immediately after Pagano's stirring speech: "I love that man. He's a great, great coach, but he's an even better guy. ... (To deliver him a win) means the world. We play for him, we practice for him, we go to meetings for him, we lift for him; so to get a win is great. Hopefully we get another one next week." And when I raised the idea of Pagano winning that award to the Colts player who's known the coach the longest, Reggie Wayne, it elicited this response: "That'd be great. He's instilled a lot in us, from OTAs to minicamp and training camp. He's always been a 'team, team, team' guy. Puts himself second. That's the kind of attitude we've had around here, guys just being able to fight for each other, and put the team first before anything else." Maybe it's all a little corny, but no doubt, it has had a galvanizing effect in Indy.
2) Mike Shanahan saw this coming. The truth between the message that Shanahan sent Sunday and how he clarified it Monday lies somewhere in between. In his third year with the Washington Redskins, he has a team that can compete now and hang with just about anyone. But it also isn't yet near realizing the vision he had upon arrival back in 2010. I'd go back to what Shanahan told me last December about how far the team had come in two years. "We had no depth at all," he said at the time. "And now, with a good draft and run in free agency, we'll be right in the thick of things next year. I really believe that. I told the owner when he hired me, 'This is not gonna happen overnight. You hire me for five years, you're gonna have to give us that time.' We're getting there." Bottom line: Shanahan expected to compete this year, and the 'Skins have. But this really has been, and needed to be, a five-year plan.
3) Nick Foles isn't the answer in Philly. Not yet, anyway. Michael Vick was far from the only problem for the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, though his inability to feel the rush compounded the massive issues the team is having along its offensive line. But regardless of how Vick played, going to rookie Nick Foles isn't likely to solve much of anything. For one, the players in that locker room remain behind Vick, and that means a benching could bring other unintended consequences. For another, Foles' lack of mobility, which was a major factor as to why he wasn't drafted higher, would figure to only further highlight the Eagles' problems in protection. That could lead to a beating for the rookie, which wouldn't be good for the team or the player's development. In the end, unless this becomes about saving people's jobs, the best thing for the franchise is to stick with Vick and get as clear an answer as they can on where he stands. At the very least, an informed decision can be made on a player the franchise has invested time and money in.
Two college players to watch on Saturday
1) Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley (vs. Texas A&M, CBS, 3:30 p.m. ET): Mosley is following Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower in the line of stud inside linebackers for Nick Saban at Alabama, and when all's said and done, he might wind up being the best of them. A rangy, tough playmaker, Mosley is arguably the best player on a proud defense that had a fairly rough outing against LSU and now faces a tricky matchup in Aggie freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel. "Mosley's the key this week," said one college scouting director. "He'll be in charge of containing the quarterback, which is a major task. And they have to be sound in the run game overall, because the QB will have a big day if they are not." The assignment for Mosley is tough, but the chance to notch a signature performance by slamming the brakes on Johnny Football is there.
2) Stanford tight end Zach Ertz (vs. Oregon State, FOX, 3 p.m. ET): Even without Andrew Luck, Stanford's playing big games in November, and this one could be a nice showcase for what should be the second of three Cardinal tight end prospects to hit the pros (Coby Fleener in 2011; Levine Toilolo in 2013). Ertz leads Stanford in catches and yards by a healthy margin; in comparing him to Fleener, one NFC exec said, "He's not as fast or athletic as Coby, but is a bigger, more physical guy. He just needs to be consistent." Given the NFL's new obsession with the tight end position, this 6-foot-6, 252-pounder -- considered a second- or third-round prospect at this point -- could rise with a strong finish to the season and good spring.
Monday night will be instructive. In New Jersey last weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed to find themselves with a gritty, gutsy win. Ben Roethlisberger is settling into Todd Haley's system, Mike Wallace is hitting his stride, and the defense seems to have weathered the storm in managing age, injuries and transitions in several spots.
Next up is a home date against the Kansas City Chiefs, who haven't had a good week, with the embarrassing loss to the San Diego Chargers followed up by the release of a high-profile free-agent signing (Stanford Routt) and some coaching-staff upheaval (Gary Gibbs named defensive coordinator).
There's potential for this one to get ugly, with ex-Chiefs coach Haley having an ax to grind and Pittsburgh rounding into shape. If it does, the Steelers roll into a showdown with the Baltimore Ravens, and more significant changes could be in the offing in Kansas City, where Romeo Crennel seems to be having trouble reining in all that's gone wrong.
Crennel's last stand? A potential launching point for the Steelers? We'll find out Monday.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer