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.
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.
It may have appeared to many that Payton had lost his touch during this tough stretch. But a big rebound was coming. In 2017, the Saints claimed the first of four straight NFC South titles, going 49-15 during this stretch. While Brees was still driving a productive offense, an improved defense was a huge part of this run, especially in 2019 and '20 when he missed a handful of games due to injuries.
Unfortunately, Payton could never quite recapture his magical touch in the playoffs, as this four-year run also was characterized by several painful postseason losses. The "Minneapolis Miracle" against Minnesota in the Divisional Round ended New Orleans' 2017 season. Then in 2018, a controversial no-call involving pass interference against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game resulted in an even more painful 26-23 overtime home loss for the top-seeded (13-3) Saints. The next season, a team that committed a league-low eight turnovers during the regular season saw Brees commit two costly giveaways in a 26-20 road loss to the Vikings in the Wild Card Round. This stretch of postseason pain was then completed in the 2020 playoffs when a Tampa Bay team New Orleans had defeated twice by double digits in the regular season came into the Superdome and scored the final 17 points to defeat their division rivals 30-20 in the Divisional Round.
This past season may have arguably been one of Payton's finest coaching jobs as the Saints battled a rash of injuries, particularly to the quarterback position, COVID-19 issues, and disruptions due to Hurricane Ida (including playing their season opener in Jacksonville, Florida) to finish 9-8. New Orleans had a shot at the playoffs entering the final week of the regular season, but San Francisco rallied from a 17-point deficit on the road against the Los Angeles Rams to come back and win in overtime to secure the final wild-card berth.
Overall, Payton went 152-89 (.631) in his 15 seasons leading the Saints. He posted a winning record in 10 of those seasons, won seven division titles, and made nine playoff appearances. His postseason record was 9-8, including a win in Super Bowl XLIV. New Orleans never finished worse than 7-9 under Payton.
With Payton resigning, the future of the Saints hangs in limbo. He is not only the winningest coach in franchise history by a significant margin (59 victories ahead of Jim Mora's 93), he also was by far the longest-tenured. He departs ranked among the top 25 head coaches in NFL history in both regular-season wins and winning percentage. And that's without going into detail regarding this impact as a member of the New Orleans community. Whoever succeeds Payton as the Saints' head coach will face a daunting challenge to match his successful, franchise-altering legacy.
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.