For the second straight offseason there were back-channel communications between the Colts and Saints about a possible trade of Sean Payton, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, though the talks ultimately broke down over draft-pick compensation.
While neither ownership group was directly involved in the process, the sources said the highest reaches of the clubs were aware of the back-and-forth and that there was mutual interest in completing a deal. The two sides, however, could not agree on the value of the trade. The Saints were seeking more compensation than the Colts were willing to give up, likely asking for at least one pick in the top two rounds, and Colts owner Jim Irsay was not willing to meet that price, the sources said.
Talks with the Colts were taking place primarily with Pete Ward, the Colts' chief operating office, the sources said, who has been with the franchise for 36 years dating back to its move from Baltimore and who is very close to Irsay.
Ward acknowledged he spoke with an affiliate of the Saints regarding Payton, but said he quickly informed them there would be no further talks.
"I received a call asking if we were interested," Ward said. "And I told the caller, 'No.'"
Payton would have likely brought Jeff Ireland with him to be the Colts' general manager. The opportunity to work with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck was a significant part of the allure of the job. Irsay fired general manager Ryan Grigson on Saturday after essentially leaving head coach Chuck Pagano, his coaching staff and football operations staff in limbo for a month since the regular season ended. Irsay made no public or private proclamations about the future of the organization and was working covertly to attempt to upgrade in those departments.
The owner maintained contact with Grigson and Pagano about some of the routine roster moves of the early offseason and the shoulder surgery Luck required, and to work on minor logistical matters like offseason scouting travel, but neither had an explicit mandate from Irsay that he would return for 2017, despite reports asserting both men were "safe."
Sources said Grigson was surprised to get the call over the weekend that he would not be back, though he was obviously aware of the recent reports about Irsay's pursuit of former head coach Jon Gruden and the owner's interest in bringing in Peyton Manning as a team president to head up football operations. During his press conference announcing Grigson's departure, Irsay sought to downplay his interest in Gruden or Manning -- couching his discussions as gathering information about his organization -- but league sources said the owner was in fact using the last few weeks as an attempt to upgrade from his current situation.
Talks with the Saints hit a stalemate in recent weeks and did not advance, and with the Senior Bowl practices about to begin and the Colts organization in limbo, Irsay finally announced on Saturday that Pagano would remain his head coach for 2017. Strong consideration will be given to Colts exec Jimmy Raye III to assume the general manager duties, and many execs around the NFL expect Irsay to promote from within at this point considering how late in January it is and the fact that he has already committed to his head coach. At this point Irsay could evaluate this arrangement for a year and then decide in 2018 whether or not to make wholesale changes throughout the organization should the team not meet his expectations.
Irsay shocked the football world by giving both Pagano and Grigson contract extensions following a tumultuous and drama-filled 2015 season. Both men entered his office for end-of-season meetings expecting at least one of them to be let go, if not both; instead Irsay preached continuity and tied both men's fortunes to one another, only to reverse course one year later. There was communication between the Colts and Saints through an intermediary about Payton a year ago as well, before Irsay announced those contract extensions, but they did not advance as far with Payton's price tag a significant factor at that time. Payton went on to sign a lucrative extension of his own with New Orleans.
Other teams like the Chargers and Rams had internal conversations about a potential trade for Payton as well, but those talks did not materialize. Payton has lifted the Saints to new heights, including winning their only Lombardi Trophy after the 2009 season, but the team has suffered three straight 7-9 seasons and quarterback Drew Brees is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career and has just one year left on his deal.