METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton seemed at peace with his decision to leave the New Orleans Saints during an emotional 90-minute farewell news conference, pointing out that coaches don’t get to choose their own expiration dates unless they experience a lot of success.
But Payton was asked a question that was probably impossible to truly answer. Could he have stepped away if the Saints hadn’t won the Super Bowl in 2009?
“That’s a great question. But the problem is one’s not enough,” said Payton, who explained that he is so competitive it “drove me crazy” that Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin reached 150 career wins a few weeks earlier than him during the 2021 season.
Tomlin was the fourth fastest to do it in NFL history. Payton was fifth.
“And it was bugging me,” said Payton, who texted Tomlin about beating him to the punch.
Payton described how he wanted to reach a second Super Bowl so badly -- not just for him -- for all the members of the team who hadn’t experienced it. He compared it to watching a great movie or eating a great meal that you couldn’t wait to share with someone else.
“Only times it by 100,000,” Payton said. “By 200,000.”
Whether or not Payton, 58, returns to coaching, his legacy will always include that first Super Bowl win in franchise history. Unfortunately, it will also include one of the most gut-wrenching collection of playoff losses the league has ever seen. He finished 152-89 in the regular season and 9-8 in nine postseasons.
Here are some of Payton’s greatest wins and most painful losses:
2006, Week 3: Saints 23, Atlanta Falcons 3
Payton’s first home game was one of the most emotional regular-season wins in NFL history -- when the Saints returned to a rebuilt Superdome after Hurricane Katrina had displaced them for a year and decimated the city. Steve Gleason’s blocked punt is immortalized with a statue outside the Dome. And the Saints, remarkably, went on to reach the NFC Championship Game in their first season with Payton and future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
2009, Super Bowl: Saints 31, Indianapolis Colts 17
Obviously. Payton and Brees outdueled Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning in a game that became iconic when Payton called a surprise onside kick to start the second half. This list is limited to one game per season -- otherwise it would also include the Saints’ 38-17 win over New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady and the week 12 Monday Night Football game when Brees posted a perfect passer rating.
2011, Week 16: Saints 45, Falcons 16
Payton and Brees in their absolute prime of offensive dominance. Brees broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season with a week to spare. The 2011 Saints still hold the NFL record for most yards in a season at 7,474. This win also exemplified Payton’s dominance over New Orleans’ biggest rivals. He went 21-9 against Atlanta.
2013, wild-card round: Saints 26, Philadelphia Eagles 24
The Saints’ first-ever road playoff win -- and Payton had fun toying with the media over the narrative that a dome team couldn’t win in cold weather. In the postgame locker room a week earlier, players had been coached to talk about how the key to winning would be changing their travel sweat suits, meals on the plane and Gatorade flavors (all of which Payton actually did).
2019, Week 3: Saints 33, Seattle Seahawks 27
Payton’s first-ever win without Brees, and a great example of how he thrived in adverse situations. The Saints had lost Brees to a thumb injury in a loss at the Los Angeles Rams and spent the week out West before rallying with Teddy Bridgewater at QB. The Saints went 5-0 with Bridgewater before Brees returned.
2021, Week 1: Saints 38, Green Bay Packers 3
More adversity when the Saints had to evacuate for a month because of Hurricane Ida. And more crafty brilliance from Payton and the Saints, who decided Jacksonville would be the best “neutral” location for a home game because of Aaron Rodgers’ poor track record in Florida and travel difficulty for Packers fans. Most notably, this was the pinnacle of Payton proving he could win in different ways over his final five seasons, leaning on the defense and run game.
2010, wild-card round: Seahawks 41, Saints 36
The “Beast Quake” game. The Saints were playing with house money after winning the Super Bowl a year earlier, so this probably won’t haunt Payton as much as others. But it will still sting to be on the wrong end of running back Marshawn Lynch’s 67-yard touchdown -- a highlight that is shown in perpetuity. Adding more insult -- Seattle was the NFL’s first 7-9 playoff team.
2011, divisional round: San Francisco 49ers 36, Saints 32
Payton, Brees and many others still consider this the season “that got away” because it was their best offense and maybe best overall team. They nearly overcame five turnovers with a 66-yard touchdown pass from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham in the final minutes. But San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith came back with a game winner to tight end Vernon Davis.
2017, divisional round: Minnesota Vikings 29, Saints 24
The Minneapolis Miracle. Ten seconds left, no timeouts, Saints leading 24-23. All they had to do was tackle receiver Stefon Diggs in bounds. Instead, rookie safety Marcus Williams missed him, and Diggs cruised 61 yards for the first “walk-off” touchdown in NFL playoff history.
2018, NFC Championship Game: Los Angeles Rams 26, Saints 23
The infamous no-call. Officials missed a blatant pass interference penalty against the Rams that would have almost certainly secured a Saints win. Instead, they lost in overtime. New Orleans’ plight briefly inspired a new NFL rule allowing PI calls to be reviewed, but it lasted only one year.
2019, wild-card round: Vikings 26, Saints 20
It’s wild this game barely makes the list, because the Saints lost in overtime to the sixth-seeded Vikings, but that’s how epic some of the other losses were. This was the second time in the Payton-Brees era that New Orleans got stuck with the No. 3 seed despite a 13-3 record.
2020, divisional round: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30, Saints 20
Brees’ final game, getting bested by Brady in the Superdome -- even though the Saints swept Tampa in the regular season. This wasn’t the best Saints team on this list -- and certainly wasn’t their best game, with four turnovers. But if tight end Jared Cook hadn’t fumbled in Bucs territory with a seven-point lead in the third quarter, the Saints might have kept Brady from a seventh Super Bowl ring.