ATLANTA — Sean Payton stood at a podium outside the Saints locker room Sunday, basking in the glow of an always-satisfying win over the archrival Atlanta Falcons — a team Payton has owned in his 10 years in New Orleans.
He was determined to stay focused as long as possible on the dramatic 20-17 victory, certainly knowing full well he would eventually be asked to comment on his future with the Saints. A franchise he has put his stamp on more than any other coach — or two — these Saints have ever had.
“We have the players in” Monday, Payton said. “We have to evaluate the roster, and we have a lot of things to do. If I feel the need to get you an itinerary, I will. That’s the answer. I can’t be more clear.”
Actually, Payton was the opposite of clear. He was murky. He was testy. He was cloudy with a chance of bombshells, as in a huge, earth-shaking announcement that could come in the days ahead that he is leaving for another NFL franchise. With Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll entrenched in New England and Seattle, it’s no stretch to say Payton is the most sought-after movable coach in the NFL this year.
That he didn’t want to talk about it is understandable. But the subject won’t go away until the NFL’s musical chairs are all filled by other coaches and he’s still filling the same chair at his office in Metairie.
Payton could have made it go away. With just a few words in a dark and echoing corridor of the Georgia Dome, he could have said that he is staying in New Orleans. Those words would have sent a tsunami warning throughout pro football and ended all the speculation — or at least reduced it to a low tide.
But people basically want to tell the truth. They don’t want to utter something they will eventually have to double back on, words they will have to eat. Payton couldn’t bring himself to say he is staying in New Orleans — even if just to momentarily cool the speculation — because he knows leaving for New York or San Diego/Los Angeles or Miami or some other NFL address is a distinct possibility.
Cynics will bay that this is all a dust storm swirled up by the media. But there is too much smoke in too many forests for there not to be a fire someplace.
ESPN reported that general manager Mickey Loomis is expected to meet with Payton on Monday and grant permission to explore his options with other clubs. The NFL Network reported that the Indianapolis Colts are set to make inquiries. And Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer, who among media types has Payton’s confidence more than anyone else, wouldn’t say Payton is definitely packing but did say he could go if the right deal could be worked out.
The Payton watch starts in earnest now. It’s already on the launch pad with opinion pieces like one in the New York Daily News last week urging the Giants to “shoot for the stars” and aim for Payton or Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Finally, a possibility to lift the spirits of football fans across Louisiana.
The mood was an odd mix Sunday in the Saints locker room. Never before in their contentious, half-century-long rivalry had a win by the Saints over the cursed Falcons — and a season sweep at that — seemed to mean so little.
Payton hooted with delight as he sprinted back to the locker room. Players laughed and smiled, and a fair number of them made good-spirited jabs at safety Jamarca Sanford, whose interception at the Falcons 25 set up Kai Forbath’s game-winning 30-yard field goal as time expired on the season.
“That boy is famous now!” receiver Willie Snead shouted as a squadron of reporters and cameras crowded around Sanford’s locker.
But there was something else, too. An undercurrent of unknowns, of melancholy, of change tugging at the jerseys of every Saints player and coach.
“We can’t control what happens after this year,” said tight end Ben Watson, who has the added burden of trying to figure out whether he’s ready to retire after 12 NFL seasons. “It’s our job to go out and do well and try to get a win.”
“I hope so,” quarterback Drew Brees said, smiling wistfully, when asked whether he thinks Payton will return. “I don’t know the future. Nobody does. Any time the season ends, there are lots of questions, so I guess we will have to wait and see. But I hope he does stay.”
There’s a chance that Brees, whose presence on next season’s roster saddles the Saints with a $30 million salary-cap hit, won’t be back, either.
No one knows the future, as Brees said. But Sunday evening as Saints players and coaches took their leave, there was a sense, perhaps an inevitability, that the core of this franchise as we’ve known it for a decade won’t make it to Year 11.
Maybe that’s a reality that Payton can’t bring himself to verbalize.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.