The future of Payton as a returning conquering hero is easy to envision and Payton's past as the greatest coach in team history is without dispute. Yet this complicated present promises to be messy. Clean exits are rare in the NFL, and things are likely to get uglier in New Orleans.
Is this team salvageable?
At 1-4, the Saints' season is on life support. The defense has absolutely no pass rush, and the overpaid secondary is underperforming. No team has given up more yards. The once-dominant offense only shows glimpses of its old self. With all-time franchise reception leader Marques Colston no longer performing at a high level, former undrafted Panthers practice squader Willie Snead is the team's No. 1 receiver. The running game is among the worst in the league and hasn't uncorked a single run longer than 17 yards.
The struggles of the New Orleans' running game is instructive. The Saints did a dramatic pivot this offseason when they dealt All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham to the Seahawks for center Max Unger and a first-round pick, a move designed to improve the team's running game. They re-signed Mark Ingram and brought in C.J. Spiller via free agency. With Drew Brees getting older and a rebuilt defense to compensate for, it looked like the Saints would play ball-control offense. Mark Ingram, Spiller and Khiry Robinson form one of the most talented backfield trios in the league. But the results simply aren't there. They are among the five worst teams in rushing yards and yards-per-attempt.
We noted in our season preview of the Saints that this organization can't seem to stick to a plan. They handed out huge contract extensions to Graham and defensive end Junior Galette last year and neither player remained with the team. Jairus Byrd received more guaranteed money than any player in free agency in 2014 and has made next to no impact. This year's big secondary addition, Brandon Browner, has been torched repeatedly by opposing offenses. The defense has been in a constant state of upheaval, with promises that things are just about to change.
"I know we're on the verge of breaking through," defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said this week via the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "You can feel it. (A breakthrough) is coming. I know it is. Just keep blaming me. Keep blaming me and that will be great."
Ryan made these comments after giving up 39 points to the struggling Eagles, a game where Ryan typically clashed with Payton on the sideline. It's hard to imagine Ryan being part of the organization in 2016 barring a dramatic turnaround. So the rebuild should continue.
A win Thursday night against the undefeated Atlanta Falcons would provide a big boost, yet it wouldn't change the structural problems of the team. This Thursday night matchup reminds me of New Orleans' Week 10 game against Atlanta in 2012, when the wandering underdog Saints handed their rivals one of the three losses suffered by the Falcons that season. That game, of course, was played in the post Bountygate-season without Payton. And it's worth wondering if Payton will be around the next time these two teams play in New Orleans.
Sean Payton came out strong Monday to deny an ESPN report suggesting the Miami Dolphins were among "multiple teams" that would have interest in inquiring about Payton's availability after this season. MMQB's Peter King repeatedly has wondered whether this will be Payton's last season in New Orleans.
"You ignore half of that stuff and obviously dismiss it. Our players aren't distracted by that," Payton said. "That comes up yearly now, not just every three or four years. That came up, shoot, my second, third, fifth, ninth, pick a year."
These reports don't come out by accident. The "multiple teams" in the ESPN report was particularly eye-catching because it suggests a competitive market for Payton's services despite the two years remaining on his contract. Plugged in reporters like Adam Schefter and King don't simply make things up out of thin air. And even if Payton is publicly annoyed by answering these questions, the reports benefit him. There is a market being created for his services at a time he's struggling to win games. This is reminiscent to the reports about possible interest in Payton from the Dallas Cowboys before he signed his most recent contract extension with the Saints in 2012.
The Saints are essentially in the middle of a rebuilding project, yet the organization has to at least consider trading Brees and/or Payton. There's an argument to be made that now is the time to see what they are worth in the open market. Brees, 36 years old, has one year left on his contract for $19.75 million. His play has undeniably declined this season. Payton comes from the Bill Parcells tree, and Parcells famously believed that it was better to leave a team before growing stale and staying at the party too long.
There is no denying that Payton's formula is no longer working in New Orleans. After winning at least 11 games in four of five seasons, the Saints are headed toward a second straight losing campaign. They also went 7-9 without Payton in 2012.
Parcells has deep roots within the Miami Dolphins, including one of his proteges, Mike Tannenbaum, running the team. Payton has a rare amount of control in New Orleans. General manager Mickey Loomis handles the business side for the Saints and the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans, but there is every reason to believe Payton is making the personnel moves. That could help explain some of the seemingly impulsive, jagged decisions the Saints have made over the last few years.
It's hard to imagine the Saints would get a lot in return for Payton in a potential trade, but Brees would be another matter. Plenty of quarterback-needy teams likely would be willing to take a chance on him to upgrade their position. The Saints could get a valuable draft pick for him before he plays out his contract year. There are an incredible amount of variables here, including Brees' level of play the rest of the season and the Saints' potential position in the draft. Perhaps the Saints will have a first-round quarterback they are ready to turn things over to.
There is never a good time to say goodbye to franchise legends, and that's what Payton and Brees will be for the rest of their lives in New Orleans. Saints fans already have started to look back at their 2009-2011 teams with nostalgia, ready to fast-forward past this uncomfortable present. If Tracy Porter never has to buy another drink in town ever again, Payton and Brees should never have to buy another car. Saying goodbye to both men would be an emotional decision for Benson, and perhaps it's easier to stick with the current plan until the bitter end.
Then again, this season is starting to feel like the bitter end. The only way out is to start winning games.