The New Orleans Saints' season has been over for two weeks and as the days have gone by, one question has remained open: Is head coach Sean Payton coming back?
Sources say that Payton, who has three years left on his contract, has not committed to returning to coach for another season in New Orleans. He has not yet informed the organization for whom he's coached since 2006 that he will definitely return.
Multiple attempts by NFL.com to reach Payton went unreturned.
Payton has been on vacation for more than a week, and a person turning off their phone while on vacation is not unprecedented. Payton using the time to decide if he wants to return or step away for a year is noteworthy, however, and he has gone dark on several people close to him.
It would be highly unlikely for Payton to coach another team in 2022, sources say. Rather, this would be a mini-retirement to recharge for a year after a season several people close to him described as incredibly challenging and difficult.
In this scenario, the Payton era likely would be over in New Orleans. If he were to return to coaching, it's expected it would be with another organization, sources say.
Such a move would not be without precedent. Bruce Arians retired following the 2017 season after five years with the Cardinals, only to come out of retirement in 2019 to coach the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay sent Arizona a sixth-round draft pick as part of the package to hire Arians as he remained under contract with the Cardinals.
Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who has a head coaching interview scheduled with the Chicago Bears, would be a top candidate to take over, sources say, but New Orleans would have to conduct a complete search to replace Payton.
One of the highest-paid coaches in the NFL, Payton is under contract through the 2024 season. Him walking away from at least $45 million is hard to fathom, but it has not been ruled out, sources say.
Prior to the end of the 2021 season, sources say Payton was approached by at least one TV network about working in media, and that appears to be a possibility, as well.
New Orleans battled through endless injuries this season, while using four QBs (Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian and Ian Book). It was trying and extremely taxing for Payton, according to those close to him. That necessitated some time away to consider his next move.
Several people close to Payton have said they simply don't know if he's returning, with others mentioning they've heard the "he could walk away" rumors like the public. Meanwhile, the Saints are in a holding pattern.
But the reality is simple: No one knows what he will do.