Some interesting, though hardly shocking news has trickled out of New Orleans the past few months: The Saints and Sean Payton might be willing to part ways this offseason, with word now coming in that the Saints could offer him up to the highest bidder in a trade.
Payton remains under contract, and the Saints don't appear to be willing to just let him out of his deal. So if they've moved on, as it appears they have, what could they get in return?
Yes, NFL head coaches can be traded, and there have been many famous ones — with wildly varying costs — who have been exchanged for draft picks and other considerations. First, here's a sampling from the past few decades of coaches swapping teams and the compensation it cost to land them:
Third-, fourth-round picks in 1997; second-round pick in 1998; first-round pick in 1999
Second-round pick in 1999
New York Jets
New England Patriots
Jets received first-round pick in 2000; fourth-round pick in 2001; seventh-round pick in 2002; Patriots received fifth-round pick in 2001; seventh-round pick in 2002
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
First-, second-round picks in 2002; first-round pick in 2003; second-round pick in 2004; plus cash
New York Jets
Fourth-round pick in 2006
Poor Herm. Clearly, he was the cheapest coach to acquire on this list and, fittingly, the least successful of the bunch. Technically, it wasn't a trade, per se, but rather a way the Chiefs could sign Edwards after the Jets cut him loose — essentially legal tampering that was approved by the commissioner's office after the not-so-secret secret got out that Chiefs GM Carl Peterson wanted Edwards.
So if we start with what Edwards netted as the low end, and use the Gruden deal as the abosolute ceiling (one that almost certainly never will be reached again as far as coach trades go), the value the Saints might be able to get likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Another other thing that stands out with this list is that it has been 10 years since one of these kinds of deals went down. So why is that?
One factor is that teams likely value their draft picks, especially higher ones, more in this team-building era, having seen how the ultra-successful model of teams such as the Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks have gone about their business. They hoard picks, not trade them, and also have had very good luck and stability with their head-coaching hires in recent years.
Plus, the Gruden deal likely scared the wits out of the NFL collectively. The old saying "it's the Joes, not the X's and O's" might apply to most coaches and teams (save for perhaps Belichick), as the lifespan of an NFL head coach seems to shorten with each passing decade. Impatient and reactive owners, many of whom cannot be called football-savvy people, often act before they think.
One more factor: The Rooney Rule. Passed in 2003, the rule requires that NFL teams seeking head coaches and general managers interview at least one minority candidate for the position. This creates the potentially awkward and unintended result of a team perhaps setting their sights on a non-minority coach such as Payton or Chip Kelly, giving a token interview to a minority candidate they have no intention of hiring for the sake of compliance of the rule and then going about working out compensation for a coach trade. That certainly was not in the intended spirit of the rule when it was created.
All that aside, it didn't stop the Cleveland Browns from reportedly making a run at Jim Harbaugh two years ago, prior to his final season in 2014 with the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, the 49ers balked at the deal — the terms of the trade talks never really came out — which reportedly involved "multiple draft picks" and reached a serious level before talks broke off.
At that point, remember, Harbaugh had an NFL coaching record of 36-11-1 and had reached three straight conference championship games (and one Super Bowl) with two different starting quarterbacks. The Browns were picking near the top of every round in that draft, and if the price was, let's say, second- and third-round picks (we're guessing based on league chatter at the time), the 49ers would have secured the 35th and 71st overall picks for a coach they ended up letting walk a year later.
Would the Browns have been markedly better now than they have been the past two seasons with Mike Pettine, who has guided the team to a 9-19 record? Impossible to know. But that's exactly the question that coach-needy teams must ask themselves if they pursue Payton, who has guided the Saints to a regular-season mark over the past eight-plus years of 84-56 (.600 win percentage), a 6-4 record in the postseason, two conference championship appearances and one Super Bowl title. (Plus, to be fair, Payton has one ugly Bounty-gate scandal to his name, and likely two straight seasons out of the playoffs barring a miraculous turnaround this season.)
Teams that might be interested in Payton's services include the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts, and because coaching trades essentially are structured in such a way where the Saints would have to void his current contract and then sign a new deal with another team, there likely would have to be some sort of agreement from Payton to agree to coach a new team before any deal is made. Another team that could be interested in him might be the Tennessee Titans, although we have not heard him mentioned yet as a possible candidate there.
What those three teams have in common, and what likely would make those jobs attractive to Payton, is the presence of a young, talented quarterback. We don't know why the Harbaugh-to-Cleveland trade fell through, but we have to imagine that Harbaugh wasn't enamored with the Browns' quarterback options at that point, which was a few months before the team drafted Johnny Manziel, even with multiple first-round picks that year as potential assets with which to add one.
The Dolphins likely will be picking higher in the draft than the Colts will, assuming they win the AFC South. On the flip side, the Colts have the more enticing quarterback to work with in Andrew Luck. But do the Colts or Dolphins need Payton that badly? That's part of any potential deal. The desire to trade for Payton, though, might become more great if either of those teams fail to land another big-name option such as — pie in the sky here — Urban Meyer or NIck Saban, perhaps some other big-named (and established) candidate or a rising star who won't cost the team draft pick(s).
At this point, we'll set the potential value for Payton at a second-round pick. It feels a bit high, but not too restrictive, for a desperate team in win-now mode that believes Payton and his aggressive, innovative offensive approach can be the difference.
Will is happen? It's hard to say now. But the Saints can take the approach of letting teams know Payton won't be given away and see what other clubs might be willing to offer as the first offseason coaching dominoes start to tumble.
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