A comedy of Saintly errors erased a New Orleans touchdown just before halftime.
Only the Saints, it would seem, could get in the end zone three times and come up empty.
About half the fans in the already three-fourths-full Mercedes-Benz Superdome decided they had enough, or perhaps remembered they had some Christmas shopping left to do, beating a path for the exits before the third quarter.
The question is, one being asked with more and more legitimacy, are the Saints going to be shopping for a coach after this season?
A 35-27 loss to the lowly Detroit Lions insured that the Saints, the erratic, confounding, inferior-talented Saints, are going to wind up with a losing record, their third in the past four years.
This isn’t to suggest that Sean Payton’s job is in jeopardy. Far from it. Payton is heavily involved in the running of this franchise. Few coaches have more control. And no Saints coach has been more successful than Payton, celebrated pilot of the team’s only Super Bowl championship.
Devoted Saints fans no doubt have named children in his honor, and his achievements still carry a serious amount of cache within the team’s walls on Airline despite a recent spate of underperforming drafts and mirage-like free-agent acquisitions.
But with every passing week, the dispatches become more urgent and the speculation mounts: Will Payton return, believing he and Drew Brees can dial up a winning combination again?
Or will he acquiesce to a deal that gives both him and the Saints a fresh start, the team finally and wholeheartedly giving in to a rebuilding project?
A sizable, success-starved cross-section of the NFL is reportedly interested in Payton’s services. The Miami Dolphins, San Diego (soon to be Los Angeles?) Chargers, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, even Monday night’s opponent, the Lions, have all been mentioned as potential landing zones for Payton. It’s a longer list of names than that of the Saints’ victims this season.
New Orleans would have to get something in return for The Visored One. A trade involving draft picks and/or personnel appears most likely. Maybe a little cash. (A nice honorarium from the student fund like in “Animal House.”) It’s unusual, but it could be done — but only with Payton’s blessing, of course.
The big question, aside from whether Payton could find a situation with another franchise that would make him believe such a move would be advantageous for his career, is who would make the decision?
To say the least, the Saints’ power structure is in question. Owner Tom Benson froze out his one-time heir apparent, granddaughter Rita LeBlanc, saying instead he would one day hand over control of the franchise to his wife, Gayle. But how much day-to-day control Benson still exerts at 88 is debatable.
It’s a matter of conjecture whether at his age Benson would want to undertake the effort required to deal Payton to another team — or even persuade him to stay. The Saints of course have a general manager in Mickey Loomis and a president in Dennis Lauscha, but would/could they team with Benson to make a deal happen? It seems incredible to think they could force a choice on Payton, so it’s logical to assume it will be Payton who decides where he will be next season.
Payton, for his part, has repeatedly dismissed reports that he could leave New Orleans, even while accepting their reason for being.
“I think that happens when you’re in Year 10 and you’re not having success,” he said in October. The topic didn’t come up Monday at his brief postgame news conference.
Like every coach who has enjoyed his measure of success, Payton undoubtedly believes he’s only a good draft and a few key moves from making the Saints a contender again.
But like every coach who has been somewhere this long — in his case, just a couple weeks shy of 10 seasons in New Orleans, including his lost Bountygate year — there is the nagging knowledge that even the best situations often become stale. The message wears thin with your players. The opposition gets wise to your tricks and tells. Under such circumstances, after so much time, a change of venue can look awfully appealing.
If the Saints had beaten the Lions on Monday night and stayed on track to finish the season with an uplifting four straight wins to save face with an 8-8 record, the possibility of Payton leaving would have seemed more remote.
But the Saints will again be 7-9 at best. Giving everyone a reboot might be what’s best for all concerned.
“If you predict that every year, at some point, someone’s going to be right,” Payton said, again back in October.
Is the end of this season going to be “some point?” Probably not even Payton knows. But the time is drawing near when we’re all going to find out.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.