Pondering Sean Payton and the Cowboys

November, 4, 2012
11/04/12
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Sean Payton John David Mercer/US PresswireThe contract extension Sean Payton signed with the Saints has been voided by NFL, making Payton a coaching free agent.

Our man Adam Schefter has a report Sunday morning that the NFL has voided Sean Payton's contract extension with the New Orleans Saints, which could make Payton a free-agent head-coaching candidate at the end of this season. The taint of the Saints' bounty scandal (for which Payton is suspended this entire season) would not be enough to damage him as a top-end candidate in the eyes of any team looking for a new head coach. And since Payton lives in Dallas and current Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is ... well ... not exactly a fan favorite these days, I am already being asked by my Twitter followers for my thoughts on whether Jerry Jones would dump Garrett for Payton if Payton became available. Adam's story addresses this as well:
Payton is expected to become the NFL's most sought-after head coach after this season and there already is speculation in league circles that he could wind up returning to Dallas, where he worked as the assistant head coach from 2003 to 2005, during which time the Cowboys brought in quarterback Tony Romo, who attended the same college, Eastern Illinois, as Payton.

So, no, this isn't going away, and I am aware of that. The question is whether Jones would ditch Garrett just because a star like Payton becomes available. I don't think it's that simple.

Jones has been extremely supportive of Garrett both publicly and privately. He wants him to be a successful NFL head coach. He has allowed him more say in personnel decisions than he's allowed any coach since Jimmy Johnson. The moves the Cowboys have made over the past year and a half on the roster and on the coaching staff indicate a franchise that is thinking long-range, with Garrett as a part of that long-range plan. Dumping Garrett for Payton at the end of this season would lead to one of two things: asking Payton to coach a roster Garrett helped assemble to instant success, or giving Payton a year or two to get the roster the way he wants it. Neither of those choices is without its warts.

Now, you can argue that Jones is kidding himself with regard to Garrett and that Garrett has offered little evidence that he'll be the successful coach Jones imagines he'll be. You have a case, and if that's your argument, then it's easy to say Jones should ditch Garrett and go with Payton or with Andy Reid, if he becomes available. There's a sense around the league that Jones is too in love with Garrett. As one NFL front-office person asked me rhetorically a couple of weeks ago, "Would teams be rushing to hire Jason Garrett if Jerry fired him in January?" The answer is no, and the fact that teams would be rushing to hire Payton and Reid answers the question for a lot of people.

But Jones' opinion is the only one that matters, and he's pretty far down the road with Garrett. It's also worth considering the fact that Garrett still has a winning record (16-15 heading into Sunday night's game in Atlanta) as Cowboys head coach. No, the season hasn't started the way a lot of Cowboys fans would have liked it to start, but after Sunday, five of Dallas' remaining eight games will be home games, and seven of the eight will be against teams that currently have losing records. There remains a chance that Garrett wins more than he loses this year, and if that happens, it will make him a lot more difficult to fire. A winning record this year, after all, would represent progress. And if Jones is looking for reasons to keep Garrett (as opposed to looking for reasons to can him), wins and losses are very often the most convincing reasons out there.

Finally, let's ask the question of whether Payton would want to coach the Cowboys. Anyone who goes there knows Jones is the GM and the never-stops-talking face of the franchise. The mountain of money the job would pay is one thing, but there's no guarantee it's going to be the most desirable head-coaching job out there. If Payton's a free agent, he might prefer to go to a place such as Philadelphia (again, if that job is open) or San Diego or even stay in New Orleans, which remains a strong possibility. We shouldn't assume Payton would want the job even if it was offered.

In the end, I think this all comes down to how the Cowboys finish the season. If they slump through the second half, Garrett continues to make late-game mistakes and the offense doesn't show improvement, Jones could get itchy, especially if proven high-quality candidates appear on the market. If the Cowboys beat up the second half of their schedule and make a run at or into the playoffs, I think Garrett will remain safe. It's important to remember that Jones is not, at this moment, eager to make a coaching change. Something would have to change his mind. I doubt the sudden appearance of Payton as a candidate is enough in and of itself to do that. But combined with other factors, such as a poor second half by Garrett, it could play a role.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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