The 2012 New Orleans Saints season has been one to forget for fans and players alike. Scratch that — the entire calendar year for the Black and Gold could be put in a box and hidden in a corner.
It's been a year that started with the Saints losing a heartbreaker to the 49ers in San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs. In March came news that head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season. General manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for half of the season, while assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games. Let's not forget about quarterback Drew Brees, who was unhappily franchise-tagged in March. He didn't sign a new deal until July 13.
Then the new season began — with the Saints losing all four games in September. We've all seen how the season has played out from there. It's been a year like no other in franchise history.
As the Saints head into the final game of the season, however, the team once again appears likely to begin a new season with uncertainty regarding a key component of their franchise: head coach Sean Payton. Will he be back next season?
Payton agreed to a new contract extension in September of 2011 that would have him as the team's head coach through the 2015 season. A report by ESPN's Chris Mortensen in March said Payton's salary was $7 million. Then, this year, the NFL voided the extension.
This week, in the leadup to the Saints' matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, the "will he or won't he" talk about Payton defecting to Dallas (where his family is now living) was a major topic on my radio show, The Sports Hangover. I feel for Saints fans. Brees' contract holdout and talks were trying enough on Who Dats — but after a season of no playoffs, for many the only hope was knowing next year will be better.
I do think Payton will eventually return to the team with a new deal — but why prolong it? This year has been painful enough. Saints fans shouldn't be entering the final week of the season in a day-by-day contract watch. It doesn't need to happen.
Payton clearly is using his leverage. I think it's in poor taste. Leaks to the likes of Fox Sports' Jay Glazer — who reported "Payton's not going to limit his options" — are clear examples of that, but for the team to make sure next season isn't a repeat of 2012, it needs to find some direction.
Free agency begins March 12, 2013, but game plans start well before then, and the Saints will be up against the salary cap heading into next season. Fat will have to be trimmed. Decisions on whether to keep players long-term will need to be made. Every day Payton doesn't sign is a day the team can't move forward. And what if Payton does take another job? We're talking about taking a whole new direction for the Saints, because Payton's influence and philosophy is embedded top to bottom within the organization.
I understand it's business — but Payton really shouldn't even be in a position of leverage considering his actions are one of the reasons the team is suffering this kind of season. If he re-ups with the Saints, he is likely to be richly rewarded. That bothers me. But it is what it is (as Payton himself likes to say), so get a new deal done or move on.
The fans, city and sports community have already gone through enough this season, including printing and selling "Free Payton" shirts to stand by their man. The way this is playing out for them isn't fair.
Catch Gus Kattengell's The Sports Hangover from 3 p.m to 6 p.m. every weekday on 106.1 FM "The Ticket."