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The End of an Era: A Review of Sean Payton's Tenure in New Orleans

Sean Payton

The most successful head coach in Saints' history guided the franchise to previously unseen accomplishments

The franchise history of the New Orleans Saints consists of two eras. The first was filled with wasted draft picks, meddlesome ownership, incompetent coaching and losing, both games and seasons. As a result, the first 39 seasons of the Saints’ existence consisted of a ton of embarrassment interspersed with occasional mediocrity and a few glimpses of respectability. The team had experienced only seven winning seasons and five playoff berths. New Orleans won just two divisional titles and one postseason contest during this era.

The other era was Sean Payton's tenure (2006-21). The amount of differences between the two periods could convince someone that those could not have been produced by the same franchise.

Related: 12 Head Coaching Candidates to Replace Sean Payton

For one, it didn't take long for Payton to enjoy success leading the Saints. In 2006, his first season, he guided the team to the NFC Championship Game for the first time. That season also served as a godsend for the city of New Orleans, which was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. It ended any discussion of the franchise relocating elsewhere or the presumed inability of the city to support an NFL team.

The Saints did relapse in Payton's next two seasons, going 7-9 in 2007 and 8-8 in '08. However, those years still felt bearable considering the franchise had experienced just two winning seasons in the previous 13 years, including two 3-13 showings. These seasons also set the stage for what was to come.

In 2009, Payton guided the Saints, a perennial also-ran in the NFL, to the pinnacle. New Orleans bolted out to a 13-0 start to grab the top seed in the NFC. The offense, led by quarterback Drew Brees, finished the regular season No. 1 in both points and yards per game. The defense gave up a fair amount of yards but was second in the league in takeaways, which helped limit the damage on the scoreboard (21.3 ppg, 20th). After demolishing Arizona in the Divisional Round, the Saints emerged from an entertaining, back-and-forth NFC Championship Game against Minnesota with a 31-28 victory. Then, in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami Gardens, Florida, New Orleans fell behind league MVP Peyton Manning and the favored Indianapolis Colts 10-0 in the first quarter only to outscore them 31-7 the rest of the way, including 15-0 in the fourth, to win the Lombardi Trophy in convincing fashion.

Payton kept the Saints among the top contenders in the conference the next two seasons, going a combined 24-8 in 2010 and '11, but playoff success was not as easy to come by. New Orleans fell in Seattle in the Wild Card Round in 2010 followed by a Divisional Round exit on the road against San Francisco the following season. 

Then in the offseason following the 2011 season, came the conclusion to the investigation into the "Bountygate" scandal that occurred during the 2009-11 seasons. In March 2012, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Payton for the entire season as punishment for his knowledge of and participation in the bounty program that rewarded Saints defenders for knocking out opposing players, and then later attempting to cover the scheme up when the league started to investigate. During his suspension, Payton served as offensive coordinator for his son's middle school team in Argyle, Texas, while his other team, not surprisingly struggled. New Orleans stumbled to an 0-4 start and finished 7-9 under interim head coaches Joe Vitt and Aaron Kromer. Payton was reinstated by Goodell in January 2013.

Payton's return reinvigorated the Saints. In 2013, a 5-0 start produced an 11-5 record and a wild-card berth. New Orleans knocked off Philadelphia for the franchise's first-ever road playoff victory but couldn't duplicate the feat in the Divisional Round against eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle.

The Saints missed out on the playoffs the next three seasons, in large part due to atrocious defenses. In posting three straight 7-9 finishes, New Orleans' defense ranked 27th or worse in the league in both points and yards allowed per game each season.