HARRISON, Idaho — No, Sean Payton hasn’t completely jumped ship.
Ask the former New Orleans Saints coach to predict the winner of the NFC South and Payton didn’t hesitate to provide Tom Brady & Co. with some bulletin-board material to kick off the season.
Payton sees the Saints – and not the widely-favored Tampa Bay Buccaneers – seizing the division title.
“And here’s why: We finished last year at 9-8, with 50-something players that missed games because of injury,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports during a wide-ranging interview. “It’s easy to see two more wins there. That puts you at 11 (wins). And then conversely, it appears Tampa has had some injuries. I think the early schedule favors New Orleans, the way it sets up.
“Atlanta’s in transition. Carolina’s in transition,” Payton added, referring to the other NFC South teams. “No disrespect to those teams but I feel like it’s a two-team race in that division. Will it be close? I’m sure it will be. But the coaching staff is intact (sans Payton) with the same coordinators. There’s a lot of continuity. And that team knows that it can beat Tampa Bay.”
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The Saints, who will host the Bucs for their home opener in Week 2, have won the past seven regular-season encounters against Tampa Bay (although the Bucs won a playoff game in New Orleans during that span following the 2020 season). So there’s certainly validity regarding the Saints’ confidence to match up against their heated division rival.
Yet Payton, now a studio analyst for the Fox Sports NFL pregame shows while aiming to ultimately return to the sideline after stepping away from his Saints job earlier this year after 16 seasons, undoubtedly has a bit of bias in the mix when assessing the chances of his former team.
He also wraps the wishful thinking with some relevant context.
Last season, the Saints used an NFL-record 58 players in the starting lineup for at least one game and cycled through 95 players on the 53-man roster. It was one of Payton’s best coaching performances, with the adjustments including the loss of quarterback Jameis Winston to a season-ending torn ACL on Oct. 31 and an offensive line forced to use 11 different starting combinations. New Orleans won four of its final five games and narrowly missed making the expanded playoff field.
Payton, replaced by his former defensive coordinator, Dennis Allen, is bullish on offseason additions such as safety Tyrann Mathieu, receiver Jarvis Landry, backup quarterback Andy Dalton and first-round receiver Chris Olave. He believes the Saints will still field one of the NFL’s most prolific defenses. He’s eager to see star wideout Michael Thomas return to form after battling injuries the past two seasons. And he thinks the offense is in good hands with long-time coordinator Pete Carmichael still in place.
Although Payton called the plays during his tenure, Carmichael stepped into the role in 2012 as the coach served a year-long suspension stemming from the Saints bounty scandal.
“And he was in my ear every season,” Payton said of Carmichael being connected by headset on gamedays. “They won’t miss a beat there.”
Payton, however, has reservations when it comes to how the Saints will handle Taysom Hill – the versatile athlete who was Payton’s experimental quarterback project.
With Payton gone, the Saints have positioned Hill at tight end for the first time in his five-year pro career. Hill started nine games at quarterback the past two seasons due to injuries and Payton used him extensively otherwise as a run-pass threat weapon. Yet with the return of Winston, who beat out Hill for the job after Drew Brees retired, and with the addition of Dalton, Allen has seemingly moved on from using Hill in the type of hybrid role that Payton created.
Hill – who until this year had never lined up in a three-point stance – told reporters during training camp that he is willing to adjust to the new position yet admitted that he still hoped to have a quarterback-type role. Payton still envisions Hill being a factor in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
“I’m anxious to see their plans for how they use him,” Payton said. “I’ve gotta believe he’s still going to be involved in packages that put him at quarterback. I’ll be surprised if he’s not. Now why would they show their hand? They can easily be practicing that and waiting until the start of the regular season. But if his role is reduced relative to those snaps, that would surprise me because he was very effective in that role.
“I know they made an announcement. I get all that. But … there were too many things that he did well that really caused defenses problems.”
What about Winston? Payton was asked if establishing a clear pecking order, with Dalton also in the mix, might make it easier on the psyche of the starting quarterback.
“I completely agree with the idea of, ‘Hey, here’s our starter,’ “ Payton said. “If you go back a year-and-a-half ago, our approach was that these guys are going to compete because it had just been Drew. Clearly, rightfully, they wanted to say, ‘Jameis is going to start for us.’ And they went out and signed Andy as a backup. The opening three weeks will tell us if they are still going to use Taysom in a role or not. I would be surprised if he’s not involved in short-yardage, goal line. There’s so many things that he can do. That’s an asset and I think Dennis and Pete and the powers that be will be smart enough to use him.”
That sounds a lot like a passionate man drawing another line in the sand. Whether it’s the designs for Hill or the rivalry with the Bucs, it’s evident that Payton still has some strong sentiments flowing when it comes to his former team.