As the New Orleans Saints pitched and lurched their way to a 7-9 record in 2015, speculation grew that the only coach to bring a Super Bowl win to the Big Easy could be nearing the end of the line.
For now at least, that speculation has been quashed, with news that the most successful head man in Saints history will be returning to the team in 2016.
However, the seat Payton will be returning to will be hotter than a bowl of jambalaya, and unless Payton makes some serious changes this season, his 11th year with the Saints will be his last.
Payton and the Saints held a press conference Wednesday, and at that presser, the 52-year-old made it clear (per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com) that he has no plans to coach anywhere else:
Sean Payton: "This is where I plan on coaching and I can't envision" coaching anywhere else. #Saints— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) January 6, 2016
That's good, because for now at least, the Saints don't appear open to the notion of Payton coaching anywhere else:
Saints will not make HC Sean Payton available to other teams at this time, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 6, 2016
It's a bit of a reversal of fortune, given reports in recent days. Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, there were reports that the Indianapolis Colts were interested in Payton before deciding to retain Chuck Pagano. Almost from the moment Tom Coughlin stepped down, Payton (a Bill Parcells disciple) was mentioned in regard to the vacancy with the Giants.
Well, except Cleveland. No one wants that job.
At day's end, it isn't hard to see why the Saints decided the devil they know is preferable to the devil they don't. After all, Payton's six playoff wins as the head coach of the Saints are six times more than every other head coach in the franchise's history combined.
Oh, and there's this.
However, it also isn't that hard to see why Payton's future with the team was in doubt to begin with.
Since that win over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, Payton's Saints teams are only 2-3 in the postseason. In three of the past four seasons (including the last two years) the Saints have gone 7-9 and missed the playoffs altogether.
Once upon a time, that wouldn't have been so bad. For years, the Saints were an NFC punching bag. Yes, things got better during the team's run to the playoffs in 2000 (the only playoff win pre-Payton in franchise history), but in the five seasons preceding Payton's arrival, the Saints finished above .500 all of once. They didn't make the playoffs at all.
The season before his arrival, the vagabond Saints won three games playing in four different home stadiums in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Then in 2006, Payton came to town. He brought with him a shiny new franchise quarterback in Brees. And just like that, the Saints won 10 games, came within a game of the Super Bowl (their first NFC title game appearance) and captured the hearts of New Orleans at a time when the city desperately needed a reason to cheer.
After a pair of seasons that look a lot like the last two (at least in the standings), there was the magical 2009 campaign. A 13-3 regular season. An overtime thriller against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game. And a Super Bowl win that included possibly the gutsiest call in the game's history.
From there, however, things started going downhill. Playoff appearances the next two seasons that once would have been thought rousing successes were considered disappointments, because the Saints didn't advance deep enough. In the past four seasons, there was just one playoff win.
And as the Saints lurched to an 0-3 start in 2015, the talk began. That the Payton/Brees era had run its course. That as often happens with long-tenured coaches (see Reid, Andy in Philadelphia) Payton had taken the Saints as far as he could. That it was time for a change.
With increased success comes increased pressure to succeed. Fans of the Saints don't just want to win. They no longer dream of winning. They expect to contend, not only for the NFC South, but also for the Lombardi trophy.
Payton was granted a reprieve of sorts Wednesday after months of speculation about his future, but the pressure is on big-time. To say that it's playoffs or bust isn't an overstatement.
In 2016, the majority of that pressure will fall in one area and on one decision by Payton and the Saints.
The team has to do something about its abysmal defense.
Per John Hendrix of the Sun-Herald, a good portion of the recent meeting between Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis was spent discussing just that:
Payton acknowledged that him and Loomis spent a lot of time talking on how to improve the #Saints defense.— John Hendrix (@JohnJHendrix) January 6, 2016
And we aren't just talking about a bad defense. Per the DVOA metric at Football Outsiders, the Saints in 2015 fielded a historically bad defense:
Final 2015 DVOA: Seattle No. 1 for the fourth straight year while Saints put up worst defense in history. https://t.co/DLvC0KBTyv— Football Outsiders (@fboutsiders) January 5, 2016
And that wasn't the only metric that demonstrated that:
Points allowed per drive since 2000. Yeah, the 2015 Saints Defense was pretty bad.... pic.twitter.com/HPBHl0QGbF— Rich Hribar (@LordReebs) January 5, 2016
Never mind the advanced metric known as "using your eyes."
And it's not like 2015 was an aberration. In 2014, the Saints ranked 31st in total defense. Two years prior to that, the team was dead last, again fielding one of the worst defenses in the history of the National Football League.
In fact, only once in the past five seasons have the Saints fielded a defense that ranked inside the league's top 20.
There are some pieces of note in that defense (end Cameron Jordan, young linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha) but there are just as many (if not more) disappointments, whether they be youngsters like safety Kenny Vaccaro or veterans like cornerback Brandon "The Flag" Browner.
This is a unit in need of a complete overhaul, but with the league's worst salary cap situation in 2016, per Over the Cap, that's not even a realistic option.
According to Joel Erickson of The Advocate, Payton allowed that the team's cap woes aren't helping matters:
Payton on salary cap: "The regrets are hindsight, and it's always in the dead-money cases."— Joel A. Erickson (@JoelAErickson) January 6, 2016
Those cap woes have also impacted a New Orleans offense that for years masked the team's defensive deficiencies.
Last year's trade of star tight end Jimmy Graham was about money as much as anything. The team has been unable to address an offensive line that struggled mightily at times last year. And quarterback Drew Brees, playing behind that line and forced to carry the team more than ever before, posted his worst statistical season since 2010.
Of course, "worst" is a relative term. Brees still threw for 4,870 yards, tossed 32 touchdown passes and posted a passer rating north of 100. And Payton insists that while neither he nor Brees are getting any younger, there's still plenty left in the tank:
Payton: "My hair is a little grayer and (Brees) has lost some of his...but that's all that has changed" #Saints— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) January 6, 2016
That may well be, but as we saw in 2015, Brees simply cannot do it alone. Not anymore.
And that makes it imperative that the Saints hit a home run with their hire at defensive coordinator. Or at least a double off the wall.
Apologies for the baseball metaphors.
It isn't going to come with a retread like interim defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Sure, Allen's OK. The defense improved a little once he took over. But at some point, there's nowhere to go but up, and OK is all Allen is.
He just isn't the guy who can take lemons and make lemonade. The Saints aren't going to be able to add impact players in free agency, so whoever the team gets will essentially be saddled with the same personnel that just combined to form one of the worst defenses the NFL has ever seen.
The Saints need a coordinator unafraid to think outside the box, who isn't set in his ways and who can make the most of what he has, rather than whine about what he doesn't.
They need a young turk taking his first crack at coordinator, like Mike Zimmer (the son, not the father) of the Vikings, Al Holcomb of the Carolina Panthers or Green Bay Packers secondary coach Joe Whitt.
Because Lord knows the secondary in New Orleans could use the help.
It's a bold strategy. And one that carries more than a bit of risk. But it's needed. The defense doesn't need to be pruned or trimmed. Someone has to take a chainsaw to that mess without jettisoning a ton of personnel the team doesn't have the resources to replace.
Payton, Brees and the offense will be fine. With an average (at best) line, no true No. 1 receiver and without the services of lead back Mark Ingram for a chunk of the season, the Saints still ranked second in the NFL in 2015.
If the team can find a coordinator able to cull together even an average defense to combine with that prolific offense, the Saints are a 10-win team vying for the playoffs in 2016.
Are the New Orleans Saints a legitimate playoff contender in 2016?
In some respects, Payton is going to be held responsible for things that are outside his control. This isn't to say that he hasn't been involved in personnel decisions or defensive coordinator hires. He has. Coaches with gaudy rings usually are.
But he isn't a defensive coach. He didn't sign the contracts that have put the Saints in a salary cap hell that leaves the team unable to easily plug the holes on the roster.
In many respects, just like the coach, the Saints are a team on the brink. Brees is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning. And the team faces a difficult decision: make one last run at the playoffs with the personnel and staff, or blow the thing up and start a rebuild that could take years.
On Wednesday, the Saints made their choice. They decided that they aren't far from being back in the playoffs, that one last run at glory is possible and that Payton is the coach to do it.
And make no mistake: If the Saints aren't that, we're going to be right back in this spot a year from now.
Only I'll be writing about candidates to replace Payton.
Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.