Opinion: Sean Payton's legacy with New Orleans Saints goes beyond X’s and O’s

That wasn’t so much of a news conference that Sean Payton conducted Tuesday in stepping down as New Orleans Saints coach.

As one of my colleagues put it, it was more like a fireside chat.

Payton addressed the media for one hour, 32 minutes – I’m guessing he set another NFL record with that – which began with a 33-minute opening statement.

How fitting. Payton poured it out on the podium. We’ve seen his passion for 15 seasons as one of the NFL’s best coaches, a sharp strategist and in-your-face competitor who narrowly missed the playoffs this season yet still managed to turn in one of his best coaching jobs yet.

In the first season without Drew Brees, Payton went through four quarterbacks, had a team that evacuated from New Orleans for a month because of Hurricane Ida, suffered a slew of COVID-19 disruptions, never got a down from injured star wideout Michael Thomas and still finished 9-8.

In the end, Payton’s passion couldn’t will the Saints to the postseason. But you know he tried.

Just as evident as he ran his out route was that Payton rolls with such a human element.

For my money, Payton was the NFL’s best crisis manager among the coaching ranks. You can certainly make a case for Andy Reid, John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin and Bill Belichick, too. The best ones know how to put out fires. Yet for Payton the crisis challenges, by NFL standards, seemed to go a bit further from the beginning, when he came to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and ignited a team the region rallied around as it recovered.

He knew it.

“This is more than just football,” Payton reflected of his start in New Orleans.

The results matter. Payton won 152 games and has a Super Bowl crown on his resume with a victory that was bolstered by arguably the gutsiest call ever on such a stage – opening the second half against the Colts with an onsides kick.

Yet Payton and the man who hired him, GM Mickey Loomis, realized that the foundation for results on the field began with the culture.

As Payton put it, “It’s a people business.”

And he is surely one of those people in the business.

Conversations with Payton, 58, often went long and almost always involved matters beyond football – sometimes by necessity. In 2016, Payton made his first public statements a day and a half after the senseless shooting death of former Saints defensive end Will Smith, telling me, “I hate guns.”

He had no qualms about using his high profile to take a side in the type of hot-button political issue that most coaches avoid, pushing for stricter gun control laws.

“If this opinion in Louisiana is super-unpopular, so be it,” he said after Smith was killed.

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Head coach Sean Payton is leaving the Saints.
Head coach Sean Payton is leaving the Saints.

A few months ago, I mentioned to Payton that I was grieving the recent loss of my mother. It struck a nerve. In lending support and encouragement, Payton shared details about circumstances that resulted in losing his mother, Jeanne, to lung cancer in 2002. He paid homage to her on Tuesday, too, crediting her for instilling a fountain of optimism into his persona.

When he reflected on his mother in September, he said, “With her, the glass was always half full. That’s not a coaching trait. That’s a personality trait.”

Another striking conversation occurred in March 2020, as he recovered from COVID-19 at the onset of the pandemic. Payton was the first NFL figure – player, coach or otherwise – confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus. I caught him for a phone chat as he quarantined at home, where he became so bored that he jumped on Twitter and posted a few plays from the Saints playbook to ignite back-and-forth banter with fans.

“For the better part of an hour, I had some fun,” Payton said as he awaited medical clearance. “Then it was like, ‘I’ve got to get off here.’“

People person.

Of course, Payton has shown us human frailties, too. He was suspended for the entire 2012 season because of the Saints’ “Bountygate” scandal – paying a heavy price for a system that was spearheaded by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, but still under Payton’s watch.

Also, it’s plausible that a man whose grind included working obsessive hours is burned out, low on the fuel that would be needed for the challenge of rebuilding the Saints during this post-Brees era. That would be human enough, too. Payton said that he thought about the 2021 campaign being his final season with the Saints before training camp began.

But as he left on his own terms (with three years remaining on a five-year contract), he refused to attach himself to the concept of “burnout.” Denial? Stubbornness? Reality?

“No one asks the fired coach if he was burned out,” Payton said.

Maybe Payton will recharge his batteries and ultimately return to the sidelines. He flatly rejects “retirement” as a description for his departure and acknowledged that he could coach again – which will fuel speculation for months, or years, about potential landing spots.

“The next challenge,” is how Payton put it.

No, the gamesmanship Payton has exhibited over the years won’t suddenly vanish. He openly lobbied for a potential TV job (yes, he’d be great at it), which might only increase the stakes for Jerry Jones (or, well, some other NFL owner) to pursue him.

“Honestly, as I sit here, I don’t know what’s next,” Payton said.

At least he will come out in public. Another of his authentic moments came in 2019, following the loss against the Rams in the NFC title game – the most crushing defeat of Payton’s career, made worse after officials missed an obvious pass interference call against Los Angeles.

For a few days, Payton remained bunkered at home, commiserating.

“I didn’t come out of my room,” he told reporters at the time. “Ate Jeni’s ice cream and watched Netflix.”

There’s much more time for that now – but perhaps only for a while.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sean Payton's legacy with Saints defined by more than football