One of the biggest stories around the Cowboys’ head coaching position the last two years has been a move that hasn’t happened; the notion of Sean Payton returning to Dallas to replace Mike McCarthy. Now that Payton has returned to the NFL with the Denver Broncos, it seems we can finally put to rest the idea of Payton working for Jerry Jones again anytime soon.
Payton was the Cowboys’ quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator from 2003-2005 as part of Bill Parcells’ coaching staff. He earned enough respect league-wide that the New Orleans Saints hired him as head coach in 2006. He held that job from 2006-2021, missing 2012 due to the Bountygate suspension. In his 15 total seasons with New Orleans, Payton won Super Bowl XLIV and reached the playoffs in eight other seasons. From 2017-2020, even with an aging Drew Brees, the Saints never finished a season with less than 11 wins.
In 2021, with Brees retiring and the Saints in a crippling salary cap situation, Payton resigned as head coach and spent a year doing broadcasting work for FOX Spots. Unsurprisingly, Payton has remained near the top of any list for head coaching candidates since leaving New Orleans. And given his prior employment in Dallas, his name’s quickly come up in any discussions of the Cowboys potentially making a change.
Jones fueled the Payton fire
Jerry Jones has even admitted in the past that he regrets ever letting Payton leave the organization. Jones has maintained a strong sense of “the one who got away” when talking about Payton-. Had Parcells retired a year earlier, we almost certainly would’ve seen Payton take over as head coach rather than leave for New Orleans. He would have likely loved to work more with QB Tony Romo, who Sean was responsible for bringing to Dallas as an undrafted free agent. Both Payton and Romo were alumni of Eastern Illinois University,
The “what could’ve been” of Payton staying in Dallas is a fun story to think about. No Wade Phillips and perhaps even no Jason Garrett; who knows how the last 17 years of Cowboys football would’ve gone with Sean leading things?
But now Payton has started a new venture with the Broncos. While his contract is not yet finalized, it’s expected to be for at least five years and make him one of the NFL’s highest-paid coaches. And because Sean’s contract with New Orleans had not yet expired, Denver traded their 2023 1st-round pick and a 2024 2nd-rounder to the Saints in exchange for them releasing Payton from his deal. New Orleans also gave up a 2024 3rd-round pick in the deal.
Clearly, the Broncos are committed to Payton for the foreseeable future to give up that much draft capital. If Sean can figure out what’s broken right now in QB Russell Wilson and that offense, perhaps he can quickly get Denver back into respectability.
At the very least, Sean Payton won’t be available for the next few years. That timing doesn’t align with what we can expect from the Cowboys, who seem to be entering a make-or-break season with Mike McCarthy.
Now or never
With offensive coordinator Kellen Moore being discarded and McCarthy taking over play-calling duties, more than ever it feels as if he’s coaching for his life in Dallas. It’s even been speculated that McCarthy’s tenuous position is part of what prompted defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to stick around this year, perhaps being promised a chance at the job should McCarthy be fired.
The bar for what constitutes a successful season in Dallas is now very high. After two-straight seasons with 12 wins but a 1-2 record in the playoffs, McCarthy has a very tall task ahead of him to make people excited about the future.
If the Cowboys see the need for change soon, there’s no realistic scenario that involves Sean Payton. He turns 60 later this year and there’s a good chance that the Broncos will be his last stop as a head coach. You never what could happen five years down the road, but will Jerry Jones even still be here to push the idea of bringing Payton back to Dallas?
End of story.