Did Sean Payton cross the line?

The decision by New Orleans coach Sean Payton to leave Drew Brees in and continue throwing late in Monday night’s victory against Atlanta is drawing lots of criticism.

Brees broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season with a little over two minutes left in a 45-16 victory. The fact Brees was still in a game that was long over has some critics saying Payton broke an unwritten rule.

Two writers I know and respect enormously took issue with Payton’s decision. Pete Prisco writes that Brees’ record is tainted due to the circumstances under which it was finalized. Jason Cole writes that leaving Brees in the game and scoring a late touchdown wasn’t very classy.

I recognized both points and I’m generally opposed to anyone running up the score. I haven’t always agreed with everything Payton does and don’t disagree all that much when people say he’s arrogant or aggressive.

But I really have no problem with what Payton did Monday night. He was looking out for the best interest of his team. Had he pulled Brees, the media attention that comes with the pursuit of a record like this would have dragged on for another week. Sure, Brees could have broken the record in Sunday’s game against Carolina.

But why not get it out of the way as soon as you can? The Saints will have other things to worry about Sunday, like trying to get ahead of San Francisco and into the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

What Payton did was not at all out of character. He had a goal in mind and he went for it.

Are the Falcons unhappy about how things played out? Absolutely, although they were careful not to publicly criticize Payton and the Saints.

But the fact is the Falcons (coaches and players) are all professionals. They’re paid very well. They’re also expected to perform at a very high level. The Falcons didn’t do that Monday night.

Will they remember what happened and try to use it as a motivating factor if they end up playing the Saints in the playoffs? No doubt. Maybe that motivation provides a different result in a postseason rematch and it comes back to bite Payton in the end.

Or maybe the Falcons simply aren’t good enough to beat the Saints? Either way, it wasn’t Payton’s responsibility to act in the best interest of the Falcons. This isn’t Little League. Payton did what he felt was best for his team at the moment and that’s his job.