National Columnist

Payton could skate out of New Orleans all the way to Dallas

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Sean Payton might turn 'his' bounty scandal into an opportunity to become a rich hero. (Getty Images)  
Sean Payton might turn 'his' bounty scandal into an opportunity to become a rich hero. (Getty Images)  

Sean Payton is smarter than I thought, and I thought he was plenty smart. Before his suspension he helped the Saints pick his coaching replacement for the 2012 season, and he screwed up the process so much that the Saints went into the dumper. This isn't hindsight, either. I saw it happening in April, and wrote about it then.

But Payton is smarter even than that. He has manipulated events so thoroughly that a return to the Saints as the conquering hero, which looked to be his end game back in April, has become an afterthought. It could still happen, sure -- but that has become the least of his options.

Unless Roger Goodell pulls another Roger Goodell and smites Sean Payton for the hell of it, Payton is about to become the most coveted, most expensive free agent coach in NFL history.

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This can't happen, yet it is. It's happening right now, as we speak. Payton is pulling strings all over the place, allowing word to leak (oops!) one day before the Saints had our full attention for Monday Night Football that his contract extension through 2015 was shot down by the NFL because of language Payton's people had put in there related to Saints general manager Mickey Loomis. In essence, Payton agreed in September 2011 to coach the Saints through 2015 unless his GM was suspended, a curious clause to request ... unless Payton knew, as he obviously did, that the NFL was looking into the Saints' bounty program, which made Loomis vulnerable to suspension.

Sure enough, Loomis was suspended. Sure enough, Payton's extension was voided. Sure enough, more than a year later, that news leaked (oops!) at the most opportune time for Sean Payton. And sure enough, New Orleans is scared and Dallas is salivating and Payton is issuing empty platitudes that he isn't going anywhere, saying "I absolutely plan" to return to the Saints.

Not, "I absolutely will" return to the Saints.

Or, "I absolutely am" returning to the Saints.

Those verbs -- will, am -- don't allow for wiggle room, which Payton might need in about four months if he's standing behind a podium at Cowboys Stadium, 20 miles from his home in the Dallas suburb Westlake, explaining how he could have possibly left the Saints after saying, "I absolutely plan to be a New Orleans Saint."

"Well," Sean Payton will be able to say in mid-February 2013, "plans change."

This guy's smart, I tell you. Smarter than I am? No question. I'm no match for Sean Payton, a former Cowboys assistant who bought his house in that Dallas suburb early in 2011. New Orleans freaked out. So did I ... at New Orleans. In February 2011 I defended Sean Payton, who was three steps ahead of me in his master plan to become coach of the Cowboys -- or at the very least, to use the Cowboys to exert incredible pressure on the Saints.

Not even Payton could have seen the events transpiring as they have since February 2011 -- that 12-month suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty program, the Saints falling apart without him, the Cowboys dissolving under coach Jason Garrett -- but here we are. Payton is a lot smart, and he's a little bit lucky, and he's about to get paid.

Gross, when you think about it. Sean Payton, who allowed and maybe even encouraged his team to place bounties on popular NFL stars -- Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, more -- is at an all-time marketable high. The Saints can't win without him. Vacancies soon could open all over the league, in Philadelphia, Washington, San Diego, Detroit and/or Dallas.

Whatever Payton was making last season in New Orleans ... double it.

He's probably worth it, too. The guy was smart enough to lead the Saints out of their mediocrity of the early 2000s -- one of the high points in franchise history, actually -- and to the Super Bowl title. And he was smarter, even, than that. He saw the bounty scandal coming, had his contract written in a way that would reward him if it did hit, then made sure he was replaced by an interim, and even an interim's interim, who wouldn't be able to sustain the success he built.

Sean Payton might be the smartest guy in the NFL.

But Roger Goodell is no dummy, and he's the only one who can stop this from happening. He can rule that Payton won't become a free agent after this season because his contract -- which is set to expire after this season -- should be extended through 2013 since Payton didn't actually coach this season. That would be an extreme move by Goodell, but he isn't afraid of making extreme moves, and he sure could use some friends in New Orleans. Right now that city loathes Goodell, but if he ensures that Sean Payton returns in 2013, the city would smile.

This isn't about making New Orleans happy, though. This is about preventing Sean Payton from turning his bounty scandal into an escape hatch -- and floating out of New Orleans with a golden parachute.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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