Sean Payton was disturbed when a question posed to him painted the picture of he and General Manager Mickey Loomis getting up from the poker table, pushing all of their chips to the middle and saying they were going to win big or go home broke.
That, the New Orleans Saints coach says, is not what happened this season. The team had a plan. Yes, it was designed for the team to win now, but it was also put together with an eye on the future.
“Number one, we do not have chips, and there is no poker room,” Payton said. “It’s about winning games and being consistent about doing that. I think that the stability that we have had both from an ownership, general manager, head coach — those are things that give you a chance.”
There’s certainly a larger plan. The Saints will figure out how to move money around and where fat can be trimmed to free up the space necessary to reload and improve this offseason. But, to many outside observers, the image of Payton and Loomis pushing their chips to the middle of the table this offseason rings true.
All one has to do is look at the ledger and observe how the salaries are constructed for several key players. Last winter’s prize of free agency, safety Jairus Byrd, was brought to New Orleans on a six-year, $54 million contract. But his deal was structured so that he only counted $3.5 million against the salary cap in 2014. The grenade will not explode until next season, when that hit balloons to $10.3 million.
The same rings true for tight end Jimmy Graham. The four-year, $40 million contract he signed before the season carried a cap hit of $4 million this season. That figure balloons to $11 million next season.
Deals such as those, even if it’s not the sentiment in halls of the team facility, create the impression that the team is going all-in for a single season and sweeping the dust under the rug to deal with another day. That pile of dust soon will have to be tended to: New Orleans figures to be at least $20 million over the salary cap before reworking deals.
But, again, Payton says that impression is wrong.
“But that would not be uncommon two years ago,” he said, referencing previous seasons when the Saints took similar approaches. “There’s going to be change, though. We are not just going to patch a few holes here and throw the ball out there next year. There is going to be some things that we look closely at, and that’s part of the deal.”
The Saints will figure out ways to make those changes. The most obvious way to create some relief is by restructuring the remaining money on Drew Brees’ contract. The Saints can create more than $8 million in cap space by converting all but $1 million of the quarterback’s 2015 base salary of $18.75 million into a signing bonus, which would allow the team to spread that hit over two years.
That would leave Brees with a cap hit of over $30 million in the final year of his contract, but he could choose to further help the team by agreeing to a new deal that would allow New Orleans to spread his money out farther.
The Saints likely will take hard looks at players like wide receiver Marques Colston ($9.7 million cap hit in 2015), linebacker David Hawthorne ($6 million) and guards Jahri Evans ($11 million) and Ben Grubbs ($9.6 million). Loomis could create more relief by taking a look at the structures of the remaining money on the deals for Byrd and pass-rusher Junior Galette ($15.45 million).
Once the Saints create that flexibility, they say the moves made to reload this team will not be made with only the short-term future in mind. They want to win now, but this organization is also seeking long-term success.
“Nothing we do is going to be with the idea that we have to win next year,” Payton said. “It is going to be what is best for the future of this organization. When you are making those decisions, you are generally doing the right thing.”
Payton believes his team will be successful in achieving his goal because of the structure of the organization and the continuity at the top, which begins with ownership and extends down to him and Loomis. Those are still the pillars of this organization.
“They do not guarantee (success), but they give you a chance,” he said. “But as you look around the league, there are places that are dysfunctional that every two or three years they find themselves back to square one. Being functional — that you just cannot take for granted. It requires a lot of work, attention to detail, and that is where we are at.”