FRISCO, Texas -- Sean Payton has opted to walk away from coaching the New Orleans Saints. Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones deferred when asked if Mike McCarthy would be his team's coach in 2022.
You don't have to connect many dots to see Payton coaching the Cowboys, which is something Jones has thought long and hard about numerous times since losing Payton to New Orleans in 2006.
If Jones is going to be fundamentally fair to Mike McCarthy, he needs to make a trade for Payton -- since the Saints still own his contractual rights -- or come out and say McCarthy is his coach. That won't end speculation, of course. But at least it squelches some of the talk between now and when the regular season starts.
(A quick aside: If McCarthy gets ripped by some for winning just one Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers, why doesn't Payton get knocked for winning just one Super Bowl with Drew Brees?
McCarthy went to the playoffs nine times with the Green Bay Packers, including four NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl. Payton went to the playoffs nine times, including three NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl.)
Once the season starts, McCarthy will be looking over his shoulder the entire time. Every loss will be dissected through the Payton prism. Dak Prescott's development will be evaluated through the Payton prism.
Everything in 2022 will be WWSPD: What would Sean Payton do?
Before Payton arrived in New Orleans, the Saints had a .403 winning percentage, five 10-win seasons and one playoff win from 1967 to 2005. From 2006 to 2021, the Saints had a .617 winning percentage, nine 10-win seasons and nine playoff victories.
Payton is just 58 years old. He admitted to being exhausted following a season in which his team relocated to Fort Worth for a stretch because of a hurricane, saw Brees' replacement Jameis Winston get hurt and withstood a number of injuries and COVID-19 absences.
The Saints had a chance to make the playoffs until the final week of the season and fell short.
The affinity between Jones and Payton is well known.
"He's done so many things for our game not only for the Dallas Cowboys," Payton said when Jones was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "If you began to put together a highlight and say 'Jerry,' after whatever topic, we would say Jerry a lot. The network, Jerry. Growing the game, Jerry. That's how he thinks."
Payton spent three seasons with the Cowboys under Bill Parcells. He nearly left after the 2004 season for the Raiders until Jones and Parcells talked him into staying, in part thanks to a pay raise.
"Sean gets it," Parcells said when he was Dallas' coach. "He really gets it. ... And he knows what's important, and he's absolutely a terrific listener. He's very bright, creative and I have a high regard for him. I really do."
At the NFL combine in Indianapolis after the Saints' Super Bowl win, Payton intercepted a bottle of 2007 Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon that Jones put on reserve for his yearly staff dinner at St. Elmo Steakhouse.
Payton signed the empty bottle, which was delivered to Jones the next night.
A good laugh was had by all and they laughed even harder after a server knocked the bottle over and saw it break into pieces.
There have been countless rumors of Payton's eventual return to Dallas.
For years, he maintained a house in a Dallas suburb. In the year he was suspended by the NFL (he missed the 2012 season as punishment for the Saints' bounty scandal) he helped coach at Liberty Christian in Argyle, Texas. Depending on who you talk to, the Cowboys and Saints had discussions regarding Payton returning to the Cowboys at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, not long into Jason Garrett's tenure as Dallas' head coach (2010-19).
Payton made reference to the number of times he was linked to the Cowboys during the 2021 regular season, specifically if he could have waited to be Parcells' eventual replacement.
"Look, there was no time frame. So, some of you guys (in the media), you guys have been here, was it like eight years finally when, 'He's not going to the Cowboys.' Or Year 9, 'Is he not going?'" Payton said.
If it ever stopped, it has started again.