HARRISON, Idaho – After smacking his best tee shot of the day – a straight line drive that soared at least 200 yards – Sean Payton danced. Or something like that. And he talked trash.
Pat Burrell, the former major league outfielder standing nearby, was hardly amused.
“You’re dancing on tee shots now and not a birdie?” Burrell chided, incredulously.
The birdies were surely few and far between for Payton, but he was eager to celebrate, nonetheless.
“I’m the only coach in the NFL who can do The Griddy,” Payton declared as he demonstrated his version of the popular dance. “And it’s documented!”
Check that, Sean. Was the only coach in the NFL ...
Payton, 58, is officially on hiatus, in January stepping away from the gig he held with the New Orleans Saints for 16 years and looking to refresh himself for the prospect of an eventual return to the sideline. He’s staying connected to the league by working weekends as a studio analyst for Fox Sports, yet in so many ways, this new NFL season represents a chance for an intense workaholic to unplug.
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While Payton and his wife, Skylene, still have a home in New Orleans, they have primarily taken up residence at the home purchased in May 2020 in an exclusive golf and lake community in Northern Idaho.
It’s a laid-back backdrop with a lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous flavor. While Payton headed to breakfast recently in his golf cart, Justin Bieber waved as he embarked on a morning walk. Other neighbors include Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon and Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Cooper. And as Payton peered over a ridge with a view of Lake Coeur d’ Alene, he pointed out a massive swath of land that he said was purchased by the Kardashians.
His golfing group happens to include the greatest hockey player ever, Wayne Gretzky – who fueled the relaxed vibe with several one-liners.
Of course, it has been a long time since Payton began an NFL season with such minimal stress. It's natural to wonder whether Payton - who doesn't point to any health issues but maintained, "I want to be in better shape," upon a return - was merely burned out.
Payton recalled sitting with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, one of his best friends, and crying as they discussed his departure, which he contemplated since the middle of last season. Saints owner Gayle Benson urged him to get out of town for a week before making his decision final.
“I came back, thought about it and it still felt right,” Payton said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t miss them. At that time for me, it felt right. That might be ‘burnout.’ Now, I have a feeling that term might be a little more final. But ‘tired’ is a good term.
“Some people will say, ‘Well, he’s not working efficiently. He doesn’t need those long hours.’ For me, I did need more time during the week to look at film. And drinking the Cokes or the Pepsi late at night, at 2 in the morning, I enjoy that. It doesn’t feel like work. And, man, there’s nothing better than winning.”
Payton is the winningest coach in Saints history (161-97, including postseason), with a resume marked by a Super Bowl XLIV triumph and seven division titles.
Despite the credentials, it’s striking to hear him admit perhaps his biggest fear.
“You’re afraid that you’re not going to get back,” Payton said.
That’s difficult to fathom, considering that Payton checks so many of the boxes that NFL owners seem to consider when it comes to hiring coaches, and typically, at least a half-dozen head coaching jobs open up each hiring cycle. Besides, it’s apparent that Payton, still under contract with the Saints, was undoubtedly on the radar of Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Although the Dolphins were denied permission to speak to Payton after he stepped down from the Saints, Ross in August was fined $1.5 million and the Dolphins docked first- and third-round picks for violating anti-tampering policies in pursuing Payton and Bucs quarterback Tom Brady, who share the same agent, Don Yee.
In June, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, citing an unnamed league source, that the Dolphins were prepared to make Payton the NFL’s highest-paid coach with a five-year, $100 million offer. To strike that deal, however, Miami would have first needed to swing a trade with the Saints.
“When I stepped away, I stepped away,” Payton said. “I heard the story that they asked for permission, was denied. I can’t control that.
“Look, you want to be wanted, so that’s a good feeling. And yet ... my agent, he knew I was stepping away and taking a year. Would that be something you’d pay attention to? Yeah. Tom Brady’s involved and everything? Sure. It was about me but it didn’t involve me.
"I was frickin’ in Mexico or I was about to come here. My focus wasn’t on teaming up with Tom as much as my focus was on beating them.”
There’s also speculation that Payton could be the next coach of the Dallas Cowboys. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Mike McCarthy is on a hot seat that might sizzle if the Cowboys don’t advance deep in the playoffs (Kids, that used to happen all the time). And Payton, who worked on his mentor Bill Parcells’ staff in Dallas before becoming the Saints coach, has a good relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
“Bill and Jerry got along well,” Payton said. “They communicated. And Bill always said, ‘There’s one thing about Jerry: He’s passionate about winning. He could be sold on something. You could move him.’ "
When it is suggested that Jones routinely seeks opinions before making big decisions, Payton replied, “Does he listen to too many people?”
Time will tell whether Payton ultimately comes into play for the Cowboys.
'Somebody will look for a coach'
Even if he proves to be a smashing success for the Fox Sports crew, Payton is approaching his TV role – at least at the moment – as a one-and-done adventure. He has been consistent in the contention that he is recharging for a purpose.
“Look, 98% of the guys coach until someone knocks on the door and they say it’s time for you to go,” Payton said. “Periodically, a guy like Bill Cowher decides that he doesn’t want to coach again. A guy like Parcells, it’s on his terms. Those are exceptions, not the norm.
“My point about getting back in is that I don’t take it for granted,” Payton said, circling back to the fear that somehow he wouldn’t coach again. “But I think there will be some interest. I think somebody will look for a coach.”
The last time Payton took a year off from coaching in the NFL, it was forced. He was suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the entire 2012 season for allowing the Saints to operate a bounty system (which was largely fueled by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams).
Payton ultimately came back strong after the suspension, which he says allows him to draw “100 percent” from that experience for perspective in returning the next time.
“I know how I felt when I came back,” he said. “Man, I was ready-ready.
“Look, I don’t think anyone can plan it, but if the opportunity exists and you’re in position, I don’t think a break is a bad thing.”
Especially if Payton comes back to a situation that would inspire him to dance The Griddy.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sean Payton, ex-Saints coach, in chill mode but admits a big fear