Dear New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson:
There is an owner with whom coach Sean Payton loves to hang out every February at the NFL scouting combine, often fraternizing with at every opportunity well into the morning. Payton and the owner can often be seen rolling around Indianapolis in a bus with a giant blue star on the side.
That owner isn't you.
There is an owner whom coach Sean Payton appreciates for giving him a raise after he turned down the head coaching job with the Oakland Raiders in 2004. An owner who rewarded him for loyalty and, unlike you, didn't make him take a pay cut at one point after making the team a contender.
That owner, quite obviously, isn't you.
There is an owner whose team plays in the city where Payton's teenage son is growing up and is now dealing with the fact that his parents are going through a divorce.
Everyone knows that owner is Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, a man who also isn't afraid to spend when he believes it will help him sell tickets, market his team and hopefully win. If Payton becomes a free agent at the end of this season, Jones and a good portion of other owners are going to line up for Payton's services.
Ultimately, if Benson hopes to do any ticket selling, marketing and, most important, winning on a regular basis in the next few years, he needs Payton. Even more, he may need to spend more than the $7 million-$8 million annually that Payton apparently was going to receive in the extension that the league has voided. As Payton serves the yearlong suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty scandal, his value is going through the roof.
New Orleans is 2-5 and playing the kind of football that harkens back to the infamous Aints days, when fans would often show up with paper grocery bags over their heads to hide the embarrassment. It's not quite that bad, but it's not far removed. The Saints are a shadow of the contender they have been since Payton got there in 2006.
The question now is whether Benson realizes that and will do something to fix it before Jones or perhaps some other owner throws $9 million or $10 million a year at Payton, along with full control of the football operations (that's going to be the tough part for Jones).
Most people would say this is all pretty obvious. It would take someone who is extremely oblivious to miss what's going on in this situation.
Well, Benson can certainly fit that bill.
A prime example would be this past offseason when Benson was facing the fallout of the bounty scandal while simultaneously trying to sign quarterback Drew Brees to a contract extension. Given the circumstances, paying a slight premium to get Brees done was a no-brainer. The Saints desperately needed a leader with Payton gone, and Brees was the next best person for the job.
But as March gave way to April and April to May and so forth, Brees remained unsigned. New Orleans players went through the entire offseason unable to work with Brees and missed his leadership. Finally, the Saints got a deal done in July for five years at $100 million.
[Winners/losers: Andrew Luck gaining ground on Robert Griffin III]
What did the Saints save in the process of haggling? Somewhere between zero and maybe $5 million over a five-year period. In a business where teams are going to spend roughly $620 million on salaries this year through 2016, that's peanuts.
Moreover, how much would it be worth to Benson and the Saints to have won a couple more games this season? You're talking about the difference between fighting for the playoffs and being an also-ran.
Better yet, you're talking about the difference between making Payton look like a really good coach or making him look like a genius who is irreplaceable.
This is not the first time that Benson, who is known for being cheap, has quibbled over small amounts of money. In 2009, he made Payton take a $250,000 pay cut to hire defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, a move that helped propel the Saints to their first and only Super Bowl title. Saints fans like to point out that Benson eventually paid Payton back the money, but that misses the point. If you're about winning first, you don't force your head coach to cut such corners. Not on such a vital post.
That gets Benson and the Saints back to this point in time. Saints fans want to believe that Payton will be loyal to the team that gave him his first head-coaching job. They want to believe that Payton won't turn his back on a town that loves him so much.
Maybe, but that's putting a premium on loyalty when Payton has plenty of connection to Jones, the Cowboys and Dallas.
If Benson wants to assure that he keeps one of the best coaches in the game together with one of the best quarterbacks in the game and, in the process, keeps the Saints as one of the top teams in the game, he better not drag his feet.
Benson better not hope that the NFL will be able to hold Payton to his contract for one more year based on his current suspension. That's not a sign of loyalty, that's a sign of control, something that Payton will likely view as an affront.
In other words, Benson better think big about what he needs to invest instead of thinking about what he can save.
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