American Football

Sean Payton trade sets blueprint for potential head coach deals in near future

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Los Angeles Rams v New Orleans Saints
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Sean McVay is under contract through 2026, but will he request a trade before then?

Make up what you will about fair compensation in return for trading a head coach—and that’s all it ever could be: a “made up” approximation of value for a rarely executed transaction—the cost isn’t what it used to be. But we have at least one piece of evidence that a team can still win a Super Bowl after doing it.

In 2002, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded two first rounds and two second round picks for Jon Gruden. Let me repeat that because you are probably still dumbfounded that 20 years ago, Gruden was valued about as highly as a top-10 franchise quarterback today.

Though there was then a series of trades with some of the picks they received, the Bucs sacrificed picks 21 and 53 that year, but still went on to win the Super Bowl with their new head coach. Would the Bucs have won the Super Bowl with Tony Dungy? Quite possibly. But the loss of those two draft picks didn’t stop Jon Gruden from doing it.

Tampa Bay then lost pick 32 in 2003 and pick 45 in 2004, failing to reach the postseason in either of those years. But as far as the Gruden trade is concerned, the Bucs won the Super Bowl and the Raiders, despite adding those picks and facing Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl, fell apart even harder in the ensuing years.

Head coach trades then went dormant again. Which is a little surprising given the copycat nature of the NFL but then again…two firsts and two seconds and $8 million in cash.

Gruden did not win another postseason game after 2002.

But the head coach trade has made its way back into the NFL transactions landscape as the Denver Broncos dealt a late first and a second to the New Orleans Saints for Sean Payton and a third. In fact, I think when you look at the compensation moved: A first round pick acquired from the Miami Dolphins at midseason for Bradley Chubb, it’s probable that Denver ownership knew at the time that they wanted to get Payton after the year as a cure for Russell Wilson.

I’m sure that ownership was open to the idea that if Nathaniel Hackett turned the team around in the second half of the year that they would hold onto the pick and use it on offensive help in the draft. But consider these points:

  • Ownership did not hire Hackett
  • Hackett was the laughingstock of NFL social media as early as Week 1
  • The Broncos had the worst offense in the NFL and Payton was just sitting out there on Fox practically taunting Denver to do better
  • The Broncos did not have a first round pick because they traded it for Wilson
  • The Broncos knew that if they wanted to get Sean Payton, they would need to trade a first round pick

Though Denver did all the classic “coaching search due diligence” by talking to a list of candidates that included Raheem Morris, Jim Caldwell, David Shaw, DeMeco Ryans, Ejiro Evero, and also Dan Quinn, the eventual return seemed to be that they only ever really wanted Payton or Jim Harbaugh. And ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio speculated that Denver didn’t even want Harbaugh, they just keep flirting with Harbaugh—even after he announced his intention to return to Michigan—as a negotiating tactic to light a fire underneath Payton.

It’s fine to believe that the Broncos had a good faith search for a head coaching candidate and they were open to someone other than Sean Payton, but it’s also fine to believe that they won’t wanted Payton. Why?

They traded two draft picks for Payton and a pick and paid him a salary reported to be in the top-two or three of head coaches.

Is it reasonable to think that the Broncos were seriously weighing their options between someone like Evero, who would cost zero draft picks and make a beginner’s coaching salary and a coach who costs them a first round pick, a second, and maybe $20 million per year?

To me, the most telling thing is merely the fact that the Broncos even had a first round pick to trade. From the end of the 2022 NFL Draft until now, only one first round pick has been traded: The Dolphins sent it to the Broncos for Bradley Chubb and then the Broncos sent it to the Saints for Sean Payton.

When Drew Brees withered and then retired, Sean Payton wanted out of New Orleans but he was under contract. He instead decided to go into retirement and to wait a year knowing that there would be teams in the coach search cycle who would not mind trading draft picks to acquire him. If he didn’t like any of the open jobs, he could just wait another year. The fact that Payton even took interviews tells you that he’s been eyeing all the potential jobs for a year—including the Los Angeles Rams if that gig had become available—and he most likely has been mulling over the Broncos since Hackett was fired with two games left in the season.

Maybe even since the trade deadline when Denver got the compensation necessary to make a deal. Maybe even since Hackett’s embarrassing Week 1 performance as a coach against the Seattle Seahawks.

If you’ve never been to Mile High Stadium, it’s nice. Of all the stadiums I’ve been to, it’s up there, with no puns intended. The franchise has won three Super Bowls since 1997 and despite six straight losing seasons, football people know that the Broncos have a commitment to winning that many other franchises simply lack; I don’t think Payton was ever seriously considering the Houston Texans or Arizona Cardinals.

He’s a coach who has some pull in deciding where he gets to go and the Broncos are an organization that can flirt with coaches of his caliber. Whether he’s overrated or not (reasonable argument), Payton is considered a top-three offensive playcaller and he takes some responsibility of out ownerships hands in running the day-to-day operations of a football team. The Broncos are not likely to feel as comfortable with a first-time head coach or someone who only had a short, unsuccessful stint as a head coach.

Payton’s 15 years of experience and nine trips to the playoffs with 12 top-10 finishes in offense is what made him worth a first round pick in trade, as well as a day two pick swap.

That’s something that the Rams and Sean McVay can’t possibly be ignoring right now.

As hard as it is for many Rams fans to hear that McVay isn’t long for the organization, this is something that I’ve always said lays at the feet of McVay himself. It goes further back than his most recent flirtation with an early retirement, although this time it took him several days to eventually decide that he wasn’t going to leave the Rams for a job in media. It makes rumors of him mulling retirement after winning the Super Bowl feel like more than just rumors and the fact that ESPN was pursuing him as early as 2019 tells you that it’s been an open secret that he’s not hard committed to coaching.

As far as anyone knows from the outside, Sean McVay has already put parameters on what will make him stay or go after the 2023 season is over.

Maybe he will leave if he wins the Super Bowl again.

Maybe he will stay if he wins the Super Bowl again.

Only McVay knows and that’s one reason why the Rams made sure to give McVay an extension before the 2022 season: It gives them the option to trade him if he ever decides to pull a Sean Payton. And for relatively huge compensation.

McVay is now signed through the 2026 season, meaning that if he were to leave next year, L.A. would still have him under contract for three more years: 2024, 2025, and 2026. If McVay were to leave and go into TV in 2024, the Rams would be able to negotiate with other teams if he decides to come back in a couple of years. Probably enough time for a coaching addict to get the itch and decide that not only does TV not fills his needs…it often doesn’t pay as well.

Payton wasn’t anything special during his stint with TV. Jason Witten went to Monday Night Football and immediately found out how unforgiving viewers are if you’re not as good as John Madden. Many of you are even saying, “John Madden? He was terrible!” Look at how quickly Tony Romo’s star seems to have faded in the last couple of years.

Television is not an easy gig. Like football, it can takes years of practice and preparation. Maybe Sean McVay won’t be as dominant in media as many assume. As competitive as people like him are, that’s going to weigh on him and he may decide that “burnout” is nothing compared to people being tuned out.

With McVay’s reputation in NFL coaching circles over the last six years, the immense tree that has sprouted from his staff since 2017, the playoff wins and top-ranked offenses, the reputation for getting the most out of quarterbacks who have underperformed expectations, he would be worth much more in trade than Sean Payton. There have been reports of McVay tying his Rams future to Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, and Jalen Ramsey. Is it possible that if the Rams don’t have those players in a couple of years that McVay will decide he wants a new challenge?

Maybe it’s media. Maybe it’s another franchise.

If that’s the case, the cost to acquire McVay won’t be a late first round pick. It will be much more. We have Sean Payton and the Broncos to thank for that.

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