METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton announced his decision to step away Tuesday, 16 years after he was hired as the New Orleans Saints' coach, though he stressed multiple times that "retirement is not the right word."
Payton, 58, said he doesn't plan to coach another team in 2022, adding, "That's not where my heart is right now." And since he has three years remaining on his contract, the Saints would have to agree to trade compensation if he wanted to coach another team.
However, Payton didn't rule out a return to coaching in the future. And he said he is interested in pursuing a TV analyst job, though he insisted that neither he nor his agent Don Yee have talked with any media outlets yet.
"I don't know what's next -- and it kind of feels good," Payton said during an emotional 90-minute news conference at the team's practice facility. "But, man, I felt like it was time. ... But not with any regret. There's some excitement, like, 'All right, what's next?'"
Payton explained that he had been considering this departure all the way back to training camp before confirming how he felt over the past two weeks. He said owner Gayle Benson, general manager Mickey Loomis and team president Dennis Lauscha all tried to talk him out of it. And he thanked Benson for encouraging him to go on vacation for the past two weeks before making a final decision.
"It really is a bittersweet day. I feel like he deserves this," said Benson, who said the team will conduct a thorough search for Payton's replacement both inside and outside the building. "I think we're gonna do a great job in choosing another person that's going to be able to lead us the way that Sean did."
The Saints are now the ninth NFL team with a head-coaching vacancy. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. are two obvious candidates for a possible promotion, considering the Saints just posted their fifth consecutive winning season and aren't necessarily looking for an overhaul.
Payton mentioned Allen by name while explaining that he and the Saints never discussed any sort of arrangement where he might possibly come back after a one-year hiatus.
"In fairness to Dennis, who's a great candidate in the building, or any other coach that possibly would be hired, there's no half-in in this game," said Payton, who also stressed that he thinks the team is still pointed in the right direction despite the fact that quarterback Drew Brees retired one year ago and and the injury-plagued 2021 team missed the playoffs for the first time in five years with a 9-8 record.
"We talk all the time about leaving a place better than when you got there to begin with," he said. "And it's not finished [here]."
Payton admitted that he searched the internet Monday night for tips on how to avoid crying during a news conference. He began by singling out Benson, Loomis and Lauscha individually, calling Loomis "one of my best friends." And he presented Benson with a piece of king cake -- a traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras dessert -- saying it was his version of TV character Ted Lasso's biscuit tradition.
Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards were among many to salute Payton on social media Tuesday:
That's my HC! At the end of the day if Seans stepping away he has a master plan. Nothing but love for you Sean if this is it for you as my Hc then I thank you for drafting me, building phenomenal teams like '11 '18-21 first off the top of my head. 11 yrs my coach, forever RESPECT https://t.co/LXE2ubFjnN— cameron jordan (@camjordan94) January 25, 2022
Thank you, Coach Payton, for 16 incredible years leading our @Saints through good times and bad. You came to New Orleans at a time when spirits were broken and hope seemed lost, but you gave the city and fans something to rally behind and be proud of. #lagov— John Bel Edwards (@LouisianaGov) January 25, 2022
You became our coach after the biggest natural disaster in U.S. history hit our state— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) January 25, 2022
You forever changed the culture of our organization, bringing us to unbelievable heights
Our gratitude for the impact you have made on our state, city, & team is immeasurable#ThankYouSean 🙏 pic.twitter.com/bQgRM2l9IF
Payton made his mark as the winningest coach in Saints history and one of the NFL's all-time great offensive minds. The Saints signed Brees two months after Payton was hired in 2006, and they led New Orleans to the first Super Bowl victory in franchise history in 2009.
Payton is tied for 21st in NFL history with 152 career victories, according to Pro Football Reference data. His career record is 152-89 (.631 winning percentage), not including his season-long suspension in 2012. Payton is 9-8 in the postseason.
According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Payton and the Saints rank first in NFL history in average points scored (27.6 per game) and yards gained (391.2 per game) among all coach-team combos with at least five seasons together.
Although the Saints narrowly missed the playoffs in 2021 (Payton joked that they are now rooting against the Los Angeles Rams since they failed to help them out with a Week 18 victory over the San Francisco 49ers), the season still represented one of Payton's most impressive coaching jobs in many ways. The Saints had to overcome Brees' retirement, an unexpected salary-cap plummet, a month-long hurricane evacuation to Dallas and a NFL-record 58 starters used because of a barrage of major injuries and COVID-19 issues.
Payton said the challenging season wasn't the reason for his departure, though. He joked that while many people told him he looked "exhausted" this season, he blamed being a little too out of shape -- and poor angles on his Zoom press conferences.
Payton began his NFL career as a quarterbacks coach with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1997 to 1998 before becoming a QB coach and offensive coordinator with the New York Giants from 1999 to 2002 and then an assistant head coach/passing game coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys from 2003 to 2005.
Payton's longevity in New Orleans is a rarity in today's NFL. Only the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick has been with his team longer. Also, Payton had four seasons of 11-plus wins in his second decade with the Saints. Only three other coaches have done that in the Super Bowl era: Belichick (10), Tom Landry (eight), Don Shula (six).