In wake of Sean Payton’s exit, should Saints start over in 2022?

New Orleans Saints. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
New Orleans Saints. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

For all those worried about the New Orleans Saints’ future sans Sean Payton, a quick reminder: Payton is leaving the Saints in a much better place than when he arrived in 2006.

Back then, the Saints had won just one playoff game in 39 years, were coming of a 3-13 season, and were forced to relocate due to Hurricane Katrina. 2022 doesn’t even come close to matching the anxieties and uncertainties of a struggling franchise and its disaster-torn city.

Payton joked at his press conference on Tuesday that trying to build his first coaching staff was like the scene in “Jerry Maguire” in which Tom Cruise shouts, “Who’s coming with me?” and grabs a goldfish as he leaves his office building.

Now that Payton has left the Saints’ building, albeit on very, very good terms, New Orleans have two daunting doors ahead of them: rebuild, or remain the same?

The solution doesn’t need to be one or the other; they can do a little of both.

The Saints have become the ninth NFL team to search for a new head coach this offseason, and despite the difficulties that come with inheriting a cap-strapped, quarterback-less team like NOLA, the franchise’s hiring options couldn’t be more clear-cut.

Dennis Allen is the presumed heir to Payton’s throne — he took control when Payton missed a game due to COVID-19, and he’s been deserving of a head coaching position for a while.

Allen’s greatest strength may be the mere fact that he’s an in-house candidate. Having grown alongside Payton for seven years, Allen has learned from the best, and he knows the defensive scheme better than anyone.

New Orleans Saints will likely go down the same path they did in 2021

Though Gayle Benson may want to take a chance on a young first-timer like she did with Payton, promoting Allen would keep the Saints’ foundation intact.

Meaning: the Saints are still in win-now mode.

If the Saints wanted to truly start over, they would have started last season in the wake of Drew Brees’ retirement. They faced even stiffer cap constraints then, but given the sheer amount of talent on their roster, they chose to restructure and remain a playoff-contending team. Which they were, barely.

This time around, NOLA may still have too much talent to start auctioning players off in a fire sale. Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Cameron Jordan, and Demario Davis are still in their prime — or at least playing as if they were — and there’s good reason to believe the team can compete again next season if its offensive and defensive core stays the same.

Yes, New Orleans are in cap hell. But get used to it, because they’ve been in this situation for a long, long time.

Per ESPN’s Mike Triplett, the Saints can “easily” create more than $100 million in cap space without cutting a single player by “converting base salaries and roster bonuses into signing bonuses and spreading cap charges into future years.”

That’s how NOLA has stayed elite for so many years, with one important caveat: the NFL’s cap needs to keep rising.

The Saints were forced to release Emmanuel Sanders, Trey Hendrickson, and several other key rostered players last season, players they could no longer afford since the league’s salary cap plummeted due to the pandemic.

Barring another pandemic, and assuming the NFL’s cap increases next season, the Saints can continue pushing cap costs into future years until…the end of time, probably. Or more realistically, until the league imposes new cap restrictions.

So while their franchise ledger drips with red ink, the Saints can go about their business and acquire some weapons, notably a starting caliber quarterback, a few offensive linemen, and a couple productive receivers to complement Thomas.

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In an ideal world, a quarterback like Russell Wilson would see the playoff-contending potential in the Saints’ squad and join the team for cheap(er).

That probably won’t happen, but NOLA’s situation could be much worse. They could be playing in the AFC.