The Dallas Cowboys have been one of the NFL's bigger disappointments this season. The 3-4 team could not beat the New York Giants last Sunday night, despite scoring 24 unanswered points in one phase of an eventual 29-24 defeat. Owner/general manager/El Jefe Jerry Jones expressed concern before the season that the window was closing for his team, but one wonders when that window was last open -- the Cowboys haven't made the playoffs since 2009, and they've won just one postseason game since the 1996 season.
Current coach Jason Garrett is under fire based on all sorts of play-calling and clock management issues, and if Jones' hand-picked coach doesn't turn it around, Jones may have access to a familiar face due to a weird kink in contract language.
According to a report from ESPN's Adam Schefter, the contract extension given to currently suspended New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was voided by the NFL, which would have Payton a free agent after the 2012 season. Payton, who is out for the entire year due to his alleged role in the team's bounty scandal, was given a contract extension in September 2011 that would have had him as the team's main man through the 2015 campaign.
However, a clause in the contract that would have voided it if Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was fired, suspended, or left the organization under any circumstances was deemed to be unsatisfactory by the league, because it would have set a complicated precedent. According to Schefter, when Payton talked with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about the status of that extension in March, he was told that the extension was not valid. The NFL has not commented on whether Payton's current suspension would "freeze" the timeline and extend the contract through the 2013 season, but Payton's side would be sure to argue that it does not.
There's been no official progress on a revised extension for Payton, because he's not allowed to have contact with any member of the team during his suspension, though he was allowed to attend the Oct. 7 game in which quarterback Drew Brees broke Johnny Unitas' record for touchdown passes in consecutive games. Payton is currently doing some work for the New Orleans Hornets, the NBA team also owned by Saints owner Tom Benson, so there could be some ancillary discussion there.
"I absolutely plan on being a New Orleans Saint," Payton told Fox Sports' Jay Glazer on Sunday morning.
However, if Payton is indeed a free agent after the 2012 season, he would unquestionably be the hottest prospect on the market. There are serious questions around the league about the process by which the bounty investigation was handled, and that scandal hasn't made anyone forget what Payton did for a Saints team that had seen little success before he became the team's head coach in 2006. Under Payton, the Saints have won a Super Bowl, and have consistently fielded one of the league's most explosive and creative offenses.
One person who surely knows this is Jones. From 2003 through 2005, Payton worked for the Cowboys as the team's assistant head coach, offensive mastermind, and quarterback guru under then-head coach Bill Parcells. Payton was the one who pushed for quarterback Tony Romo, who went to Payton's alma mater, Eastern Illinois. Payton was living in the Dallas area with his family, though he moved out of his Westlake, Texas, home when he and his wife reportedly filed for divorce in June.
Asked about the Cowboys job at an Dallas-based speaking engagement in October, Payton quipped that he'd rather answer a bounty question. Once the crowd was done laughing, the coach said that "Right now, my focus is on staying with New Orleans and really getting back on the sidelines."
It's all speculation at this point, but it's not too hard to connect the dots. Jones always goes after a more well-known and dominant coach when his team is on the skids -- that was the thought process behind the Parcells hire in the first place -- and Payton may well be looking for a change in scenery after a year of such personal and professional upheaval.
On the other hand, Payton and Benson have a very good relationship, and the bond between Payton and Drew Brees is especially strong and effective.
"It's been an adjustment, certainly," Brees told me in mid-October when I asked him about life without Payton on the field. "Throughout the games, there's a lot of dialogue. I hear his voice in my helmet, and we talk about situations during timeouts, or before critical third downs, or red zone plays. There's a lot of that going on. During the week, too -- there's so much of that during the week, I want to know what's going to come out of his mouth before it does. It's ESP. I want to know what's going to be called in certain situations. I feel that I function so much better that way. Now, Pete Carmichael and I do all the same things that Sean and I used to do. Maybe even more so, because the two of us, we've only had part of last season and this season together in that capacity, where he's the play-caller and I'm the quarterback."
Payton and Romo remain close, though -- they played a beach football game together during the 2011 lockout in which Payton benched Romo, replaced the quarterback with himself, and threw Romo a touchdown pass.
One thing's for sure -- if Sean Payton is indeed a free agent this upcoming offseason, he could be more valuable than any player on that same market.
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