Three Saints Head Coach Candidates if Sean Payton Retires

Sean Payton
Sean Payton / Todd Kirkland/GettyImages

In a bit of an unexpected news dump this morning, Ian Rapoport reported for NFL Network that Sean Payton's return to the New Orleans Saints is not guaranteed next season. Much like the Tom Brady reports from Sunday, nothing is concrete, but Rapoport said this year was very challenging for Payton and he is considering stepping away. Per NFL Network:

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.

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.

As Rapoport notes, it wouldn't be crazy for Payton to take a breather for a year or two. Numerous coaches have done the same. But it is still a shocking report considering there was no indication of this being a possibility until now.

The Saints as we know them are inseparable from Payton. He took over in 2006 and transformed the entire culture, cultivating a very successful franchise that notched numerous playoff appearances and a Super Bowl victory. But New Orleans is in a weird middle ground right now. Their defense has a lot of good but aging pieces and they don't really have an answer at quarterback. Jameis Winston seemed like he was growing under Payton's tutelage but tore his ACL before any definitive answers could be had. Trevor Siemian is a fine backup but not a starter and Taysom Hill reminded everybody (again) that he is nothing more than a utility player and certainly not a franchise QB. If a change at head coach were coming, the timing makes a lot of sense.

If Payton were to retire, who could the Saints tap to replace him? Here are a few options.

Pete Carmichael

Carmichael has been the team's offensive coordinator under Payton since 2009 and seems like the most obvious choice to replace Payton in a pinch. He knows Payton's system and it wouldn't be a huge shakeup to keep him around culture-wise. The big question, of course, is how much of the Saints' offensive success can be attributed to Payton vs. Carmichael. Can the student become the master? Carmichael is likely the safest option in terms of familiarity but comes with more question marks than hiring a known commodity.

Jim Caldwell

If the Saints decide they'd prefer to keep Carmichael in his current role, hiring Caldwell is another route on the safer side. He's a good but not great coach who doesn't appear to have much to do with the schemes of his team and is instead a classic leader of a head coach who oversees a solid locker room culture. New Orleans has a good enough roster that they don't necessarily need another Payton-level genius to win games at a consistent clip. Caldwell makes for an easy transition and would keep the ship steady, even if he may not be a home run hire who can overcome the roster deficiencies.

Kellen Moore

The last time the Saints hired a Cowboys employee to take over their franchise, it worked out pretty darn well. How about another go? Moore is not the second coming of Payton and the Saints should not be looking for that, but he is a popular head coach candidate this cycle for good reason. Ending of the Niners-Cowboys playoff game aside, Moore proved his offensive scheme works with talented players and the Saints still do have that. The question, of course, is if Moore can scheme up an offense that covers for a quarterback's weaknesses to a much larger degree than what he's had to do for Dak Prescott the last few years. Moore does fit the bill, though-- a former QB-turned-coordinator with a few seasons under his belt and young enough that he could be around for a while if he ends up being a home run.