Now that’s one way to send the New Orleans Saints fanbase into an uproar. The Saints greenlit an interview request from the Carolina Panthers for former head coach Sean Payton, who is still under contract with New Orleans through 2024 after stepping down from his post last year. The Panthers have been meeting with head coach candidates throughout the week after interim coach Steve Wilks led them to a 7-10 finish, having dismissed Matt Rhule midway through the 2022 season.
Now Payton is on the radar of an NFC South rival and he could soon be coaching against the Saints twice each year. He still needs to actually meet with Carolina and see what owner David Tepper is willing to offer him, and it would take a lot for him to willingly enter such a fraught situation — but if Tepper is willing to pay him $15 to $20 million a year and give him personnel control, well, that’s a tough offer to walk away from.
But this would definitely lead to bad blood within an established rivalry. The Saints have a narrow 29-28 lead over the Panthers in their series history. While it isn’t as spirited a feud as New Orleans enjoys with the Atlanta Falcons, there’s real passion and vitriol here. Having the greatest coach in franchise history leading a direct competitor would sure add fuel to that fire.
Trading Payton to Carolina would also bring a stronger return to the Saints. A division rival is going to be taxed more heavily than a team in another NFC division, or one hailing from the AFC. While New Orleans hasn’t worked out specific compensation with any team interviewing Payton in the days ahead, general manager Mickey Loomis has said that part of the process in approving those interviews is reaching a general understanding of what is needed to acquire Payton. And that price changes for each team based on their unique circumstances and available trade assets.
Remember, players can’t be involved in coach trades. Teams can only exchange draft picks and cash. And the Panthers could do more to drive up the price than any other team thanks to their stockpile of draft assets. They own selections in the 2023 draft including the ninth overall pick in the first round, a pair of second rounders, a third rounder, and two fourth-round selections. They also have their full allotment of picks in 2024 with a couple of more late-round picks thrown in for good measure.
The only hurdle is Payton himself. Carolina’s situation is not one that matches his ideal description of stable, supportive ownership and an effective front office. David Tepper has been a mercurial force after buying the franchise a couple of years ago, waffling on personnel decisions and pushing them to make ill-advised moves for a series of quarterbacks of varying competence. They still don’t have a quarterback, and Payton’s odds of finding one he wants to work with diminish if the Panthers trade the No. 9 pick for him. Even if Tepper offers him everything he wants, it’s tough to see him taking that offer seriously.
But stranger things have happened than an iconic coach being traded to a division rival. Payton’s own mentor Bill Parcells was once traded from the New England Patriots to the New York Jets. We shouldn’t dismiss this possibility out of hand. The Panthers are obviously willing to pay the price by seeking an interview in the first place. It just comes back to Payton’s willingness to take the job.