By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts franchise quarterback

Sean Payton spoke unexpectedly Tuesday morning in an impromptu press conference at the NFL owner meetings in Palm Beach.

The exchange was mostly personal in the wake of his year-long suspension from Bounty-Gate. The New Orleans Saints coach touched on the “range of emotions” he’s gone through over the past five days. He said it struck him, on the drive to the meetings this morning, that the 2012 season will be the first in 39 years, since he started playing Pop Warner football, that he will "not be directly involved in football for a season."

Payton also spoke about the prospect of Bill Parcells serving as the team’s interim coach in 2012, citing their history together (Payton was a Parcells assistant in Dallas from 2003 to 2005) and the “crossover in the framework” that Payton has built in New Orleans that the Hall of Fame coach would find familiar.

Payton may or may not appeal his suspension and he indicated he’s still not clear exactly what kind of interaction he’ll be allowed to have with the team this season.

That’s all nice and good. But let’s get down to brass statistical tacks here. And the reality of the situation is that the NFL did a fairly good job of screwing the Saints hard in 2012. Can the organization maintain its competitive success after an entire season without the coach largely responsiple for transforming the old 'Aints into a champion and an NFL glamour franchise?

Substantively, Payton’s year-long suspension is part of a devastating series of punishments issued by Gridiron Godfather Roger Goodell. In fact, it’s the closest thing to the NCAA’s SMU-style death penalty that we’ve ever seen in the NFL. Goodell will not ruin the New Orleans program forever, of course, the way the NCAA regretfully did to the football program at Southern Methodist.

But the commissioner certainly added incredible hurdles for the team to overcome in 2012 – more hurdles than can be reasonably expected them to overcome and compete for a Super Bowl. It will certainly be difficult to regain the momentum in 2013, too.

You already know the details: Payton is gone for 2012. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt will miss the first six games. General manager Mickey Loomis will miss the first eight. The team loses a second-round pick in each of the next two drafts.

Meanwhile, the organization is still trying to pin down its franchise quarterback Drew Brees, and is fresh off a season in which he had huge problems competitively, specifically on the defensive side of the ball.

The loss of Payton for the season may prove truly devastating. The Cold, Hard Football Facts have long noted that winning in football, and especially in the NFL, is all about stability and quality in management, from ownership to the coaching staff to leaders on the field, especially at quarterback.

Great coaches help instantly change the fortunes of a franchise – almost always in partnership with a great quarterback, such as the one Payton has had in Brees.

Go through some of the greatest teams in NFL history:
  • The Packers hadn’t enjoyed a winning season in more than a decade when Vince Lombardi arrived on the scene in 1959.
  • The Steelers had failed to win so much as a single postseason game in their first 35 seasons, before  Chuck Noll arrived on the scene in 1969.
  • The 49ers had reached the postseason just five times in their first 35 season (AAFC and NFL) before Bill Walsh arrived on the scene in 1979.
  • The Patriots won seven playoff games in their first 40 seasons before Bill Belichick arrived on the scene in 2000.
Payton is not yet a Hall of Fame coach, like the four coaches on that list. But the seeds of continued success have clearly been planted. Payton certainly inspired a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of what was, for four decades, one of the NFL’ s worst franchises year in and year out.

Here are some of the highlights of the reversal of fortunes that Payton inspired in New Orleans:

WINS – The Saints enjoyed 10+ wins five times in their first 39 years; they’ve won 10+ games four times in six years under Payton.

GREAT TEAMS – The Saints never won more than 12 games in the 39 years before Payton arrived; they won 13 games in both 2009 and 2011 under Payton.

POINTS – The Saints had scored more than 400 points just twice in their first 39 seasons; they’ve scored more than 400 points four times in six years under Payton.

SCORING RECORDS – The Saints fielded their three most prolific offensive clubs under Payton: 547 point scored in 2011; 510 points in 2009; 463 points in 2008. The franchise's previous record was 432 points under Jim Haslett in 2002.

DOMINANCE – The Saints fielded their two most dominant teams under Payton: +208 in point differential in 2011; +169 in 2009. The previous record was +139 under Jim Mora in 1987.

POSTSEASON SUCCESS – The Saints won one playoff game in their first 39 years, a victory over the Rams in the 2000 wildcard round. The Saints have won five playoff games under Payton, including a victory in Super Bowl XLIV. 

Keep in mind that the Saints – the ‘Aints – joined the NFL in 1967 and went 20 years before they enjoyed their first winning season. Nobody could win in New Orleans.

Hank Stram was a pretty good coach he won three AFL titles and a Super Bowl with the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs in the 1960s. He went 7-18 in two years with the ‘Aints. Bum Phillips was a pretty good coach in Houston, with five winning seasons in six years (55-35). He went 27-42 with the ‘Aints.

The team got off on the wrong foot, too, even by the lowly standards of expansion franchises. The team’s first coach, Tom Fears, was as Hall of Famer on the field but dreadful on the sidelines. His Saints went 13-34-2 from 1967 to his removal midway through the 1970 season.

Quarterback Billy Kilmer won a lot of games with the Redskins (50-23-1). He won very few games with the ‘Aints (11-29). Quarterback Archie Manning was a legendary college quarterback and still to this day a favorite Son of the South. His ‘Aints were dreadful (35-91-3). Ken Stabler was a legend and a champ with the Raiders. He went 16-18 with the 'Aints.

The New Orleans organization enjoyed its first bit of success under Jim Mora in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but even then failed to win a single playoff game.

Payton in 2006 took over a team that had regressed back to the ‘Aints. The team went 3-13 in 2005 and had enjoyed a winning record just twice in the previous 13 seasons.
Clearly, Payton has been a watershed personality in the history of the franchise. Now the team, and its fans, will learn if it can overcome a year without its most important figure.