I have spent the better part of this week trying to comprehend all of the clandestine inner workings of this Sean Payton contract saga, and yet I remain somewhat baffled. Baffled by the lack of transparency. Baffled by a lack of clarity that, frankly, I believe is owed to Saints fans, now thrust into yet another unusual NFL conundrum and left to wonder if their suspended Super Bowl-winning coach will ever lead their team again.
If this whole "bounty" fallout has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected. The fact that it took a scoop from an ESPN reporter last week to reveal that a contract extension for Payton that was announced publicly back in September 2011 had been voided by the league much later, I guess, shouldn't surprise me. But aren't the fans owed more? (To say nothing of what you might think Payton and the Saints organization deserve).
Is there not a covenant with the fans that should require that if they are spending their hard-earned money on tickets and jerseys and everything else, they do so with at least the knowledge that when a team announces its coach is signed through 2015, that it's, you know, true? And if that somehow changed along the way, shouldn't those fans be afforded the courtesy to know as much? Don't the local businesses signing sponsorship deals with the franchise and buying suites on a multiyear basis and entering into various contracts -- and doing so thinking Payton, a massive part of all the organization has accomplished, is signed for years to come -- have a right to know that in fact that is not the case? Is that too much to ask of the league, or the team?
And, at least this week, there were very few answers coming from the league office as to why, when and how this all went down, and what comes next.
Am I the only one who finds it odd this comes out 13 months after the fact? Am I the only one who thinks the NFL should expound on this situation, explain why this action was taken? And in a league where coaches and players must routinely stand before the media and take questions, Goodell, especially under the backdrop of the bounty case, should have a press conference or conference call and give a more thorough detailing of why the decision was made and what happens now. At this point I would think the NFL would want to be as proactive as possible to quell conspiracy theories.
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In this case, with the commissioner voiding the deal based on the league's disproval of a clause that would allow Payton to leave the team should general manager Mickey Loomis be suspended, or fired by the team (according to sources), I put the onus on the NFL to be more forthcoming. The parties involved -- Saints owner Tom Benson and Loomis and Payton -- didn't have a problem with it, and I don't believe the NFL should, either. If it does, some elaboration would help.
Instead, we got a statement from the NFL, saying very little, last Sunday when the story broke, then Goodell interacted very briefly with reporters at a game later that day, and that has been it. The statement indicated Goodell had made no decision on Payton's 2013 contract status, but given the murkiness surrounding when exactly Payton will be reinstated and considering he is currently on an unprecedented season-long suspension (consider no coach had ever been suspended for a game, previously), more details are warranted.
"The one contract that was sent into us ... we told him what the issue was," Goodell told reporters before last Sunday night's Cowboys-Falcons game. "Now, it's up to the team and Sean Payton. So until I get something back, it's up to them."
That has been about the extent of any official communication. Given that all of this is transpiring under the bounty cloud, all the more need for more direct communication between the custodians of the game and those who pay to subsidize it through their purchases.
Some NFL officials did say privately this week that the Saints and Payton could continue to negotiate a contract, but not on the record. I'm not sure that's much solace to Saints fans when the parties that would negotiate the extension still believe they are forbidden to in fact have any such contact, according to sources with knowledge of the process. The coach and the team are operating under very specific rules forbidding any such contact between Payton and the organization per the written terms of his suspension. As of Friday, the sides had been given no written addendum to that suspension stipulating negotiations could occur. So there remains disparity of understanding on that central issue.
With so much at stake for both in the wake of the severe bounty sanctions, and given the twists and turns since the initial discipline in the bounty case were announced, I don't blame them for adhering to the letter of the law. I asked the league whether they had or intended to provide written clarity to Payton and the Saints that they could negotiate, and was told it was a matter between the coach and the team and the NFL had no comment. The NFL wouldn't address why, or why not, such new written parameters would, or would not, be distributed to the coach and the team. The Saints, and Payton, aren't talking either, but again, given the circumstances of these suspensions, that's not a surprise.
If the league makes a move as significant as this -- negating a multiyear extension between one of the game's brightest coaches and the franchise he transformed -- then stand behind it. Now that it's out there, explain how this "precedent" of not allowing Payton to tie his contract to Loomis would be so catastrophic.
Is it that much different from Bill Parcells, when becoming an executive in Miami, putting a clause in his deal that allowed him to leave if Wayne Huizenga sold the team? Is it more dangerous than letting people in a similar role as Parcells had in Miami also own a percentage of the teams they work for? Is it more dangerous than allowing teams to trade entire draft classes for a player (like New Orleans once did for Ricky Williams)? Is it that much different from assistant coaches getting clauses that mandate they must make more than other coaches at different teams? Is it more conflicting than allowing agents to represent coaches and general managers and players and other execs all working within the same franchise?
And, especially with many Saints fans believing their team has already been singled out unfairly in the bounty drama, and especially with dueling lawsuits and appeals and that case dragging through the season, and with some player suspensions already being lessened ... especially now, shouldn't transparency be the rule?
Should there be some explanation as to why, as I've been told, it took an unusually long period for the league to reject the clause in the first place? And, if you are Sean Payton, and you know the tension that exists between the football side of the organization and Benson's granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, at 35 a possible heir to the team and someone who has a fractured relationship with Loomis and others, then do you blame him for having contingencies in there protecting him should she take over? (Tom Benson is in his mid-80s).
Rita Benson LeBlanc was suspended from the team by her grandfather last season, according to sources, and has clashed with many in football operations. This would be more than a casual concern for any coach, much less one as experienced as Payton.
Knowing all of the past struggles of this franchise over the years before his arrival, knowing what a valuable coaching commodity he is, and knowing that teams can fall into peril when changing from an experienced owner to a more novice one, do you blame Payton for asking for that clause? And if Tom Benson himself doesn't have a problem with it, then why should Park Avenue?
In a league in which terms have been worked out allowing franchises to move, for goodness sake, is this contract provision so out of bounds that it merits being rejected, under these circumstances, and creating another bizarre scene for the NFL?
Can you blame Saints fans (and employees, for that matter) for questioning all of the above, and thinking that someone has it in for them? I understand wanting to keep the inner working of contracts private, but once it's out there, like this, action is required.
Instead we are left with so many questions.
Many around the league believe that ultimately Payton remains with the Saints, but in the meantime it's only natural that speculation mounts about a move, to Dallas in particular. Payton lives near Dallas, and he once worked for the Cowboys under owner Jerry Jones, with whom he continues to share a strong relationship. More angst for Saints fans.
If Payton and the Saints can't come to terms themselves, and they appeal back to Goodell, what would he do?
Would Goodell toll Payton's contract -- making his 2012 deal carry over to 2013 given his suspension this year -- and would Payton have a possible lawsuit? If Payton were to eventually walk as a free agent, would Benson have some recourse available? He would undoubtedly be irate that he lost a year of Payton's services while suspended and then lost the precious asset entirely.
Would Goodell, finding himself in quite a bind here, meet with Payton after the Super Bowl, per the terms of his suspension, and then, say, reinstate Payton effective in March or April (which would make it even more unlikely that any team other than the Saints, even the Cowboys, could wait that long to try to sign him).
I understand the reluctance of the league to discuss hypothetical situations and things yet to be decided in the future and where this might be going. That's standard operating procedure for any league in a matter as sensitive as this. But a more thorough explanation of how we reached this point, and the rules of engagement in the present, are in order here. Saints fans deserve that much.