the Saints got a mess on their hands

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Sean Payton is the greatest head coach in New Orleans Saints history. He has more wins than anyone who has ever taken the reins of the once inept franchise. He’s coached more than eight times as many playoff games as the next closest player in the Saints’ record books. He is responsible for the team’s only Lombardi Trophy.

He somehow got a winning record from a 2021 team whose starting quarterbacks were Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill, Trevor Siemian and Ian Book. It looks like this will be his last accomplishment as a head coach at New Orleans. Reports surfaced on Tuesday afternoon that he was stepping away from the game after 16 seasons as Saints head coach.

It’s a surprising decision that makes an already rocky offseason in New Orleans even more difficult. Payton’s retirement leaves the Saints behind the eight other NFL teams that have already fired their head coaches. The Chicago Bears, for example, have already had three candidates lined up for interviews around the same time, Payton reportedly told his team that he would not be returning for 2022.

Not only will New Orleans likely have to sift through a crop of already selected candidates, but they don’t have much equipment to sway a prospective head coach. The Saints, in recent tradition, enter the offseason significantly above the salary cap expected for next year. No team is worse off than their -74 million cap space. Years of contract restructuring and bonus staggering in the future doesn’t just mean the roster can’t get better – it means it will likely have to get worse before it gets better.

That means the 2022 version of the team could be without pending free agents Terron Armstead and Marcus Williams. He’ll also have to figure out what to do at quarterback, where Hill is locked up for more than $12 million, but Winston is heading to the open market. Whoever takes the reins next will also have the honor of determining what to do with Michael Thomas and the remaining three years and approximately $75 million in cap hits tied to his contract.

Last year’s saints were rarely threatening and only getting worse. Payton’s abrupt retirement offers the club two paths: keep limping along while massaging a bloated below-salary-cap roster like someone taking on more and more payday loans, or blow it up and reset like the Texans — a team with similar cap issues, a since-gone head coach and a huge quarterback hole — did it in 2021.

Houston has been transparent about its rebuild and was reduced to hiring David Culley for a year before firing him. New Orleans can resign itself to a similar outcome. The Saints are not a destination for top-level coaching candidates in this condition. They won’t be for a few years. The franchise, as it stands, is not a fix-it, but rather a tear-down project.

Payton realized that probably fielded a few calls to join FOX’s broadcast booth, and press eject. Now his former franchise must clean up the mess his accident left behind.

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