Sean Payton steps away from the Saints

None of us had spoken a word in quite some time.

There were three of us there, standing in front of a house we knew well surrounded by a forest of trees that felt as tall as skyscrapers to a 10-year old like myself.

Unfortunately, a stranger passing by really wouldn’t call the structure lying in front of us a house. All the makings of a house were there at our feet, sure. There were bricks and windowsills and glass on the ground.

There was the front door that had once swung open to welcome friends and family inside to the warmth of a glowing fireplace.

It was all there in front of us covered in ash and debris.

My dad, uncle, and I stared quietly surrounded by the ruble that once stood proudly against the woodline.

The house that we went to every deer-hunting season was gone. The fire that burned it to the ground the week before we arrived for our annual trip had seen to it that there was only charred wood and bricks left.

The mid-December air could be felt deep in our bones, but the silence between the three of us carried a chill that could be felt in our souls.

“It’s sad,” I finally found the courage to mutter. 

“Yes, it is,” my uncle replied, “but life goes on.”

When news broke of New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton’s decision to step away from the franchise, many fans, including myself, felt gutted.

For the last 16 years, Payton patrolled the sidelines of the Superdome and was an integral part of the teams that rose the Saints from league laughingstock to perennial Super Bowl contender.

Obviously, there is no greater highlight in Payton’s tenure with the Saints than the franchise’s one and only league championship in Super Bowl XLIV.

Now, fans of the black and gold will have to cope with losing hall-of-fame quarterback Drew Brees and coach Payton, the architects of the Saints’ winning culture, in back-to-back years.

While fans were certainly sad to see Brees retire at the end of the 2020 season, many expected that announcement to happen. There’s only so many years a man’s body will allow him to take the wear and tear that comes with playing the sport of football, and Brees was no spring chicken at age 42.

Coaching football is different. Generally, there’s no physical toll that comes with wearing a headset and calling plays. If a coach’s mental faculties are still present, he/she can still coach.

That’s why Payton stepping away from the game at age 58 feels so jarring for fans. 16 years is an abnormally long time to coach with one team, but at first glance it seemed to many that Payton still had years left in his tank with New Orleans.

However, there’s the mental strain of being a coach that fans don’t see. This is especially the case in the National Football League where the stress and anxiety of leading a team are taken to the next level.

Your job security seemingly hangs in the balance season-by-season and sometimes game-by-game.

Then, there’s the unique stress of the last two seasons.

The 2020 season began during a global pandemic and ended with the retirement of Brees, the greatest quarterback in Saints history and Payton’s partner since he began his tenure as the New Orleans coach.

The 2021 season began in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, and Saints fans watched as their team broke an NFL record after using 57 different starters throughout the year due to various injuries and Covid-19 complications.

These circumstances would be trying for any coach, and, in the end, Payton decided that it was best for him to step away.

Payton finishes his stint in New Orleans with a 152-89 record, seven NFC South titles, and a Super Bowl championship. His offenses were some of the league’s most dominant to watch, and the Saints finished with the fourth highest winning percentage in the NFL during Payton’s run.

Payton wasn’t perfect. Each season had its high and low moments. However, the Saints franchise, the city of New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana was better for having a coach like Payton at the head of its football team.

I’m sure that walking into the Superdome for a Saints game will not be the same for fans without Brees or Payton down on the field. For some, the absence of those two may make the building feel like a different place entirely.

After the house fire at my family’s hunting camp, trips there in the winter have never felt the same either. However, the fire that consumed the old house did not burn the foundation.

The potential to rebuild and make new memories together, albeit different ones, was still there.

Likewise, the winning culture of the Saints franchise is still present. The foundation for another Super Bowl run still exists.

Perhaps, that will be the greatest testament to the Payton-Brees legacy.

It’s certainly sad to witness the end of such an exciting era of football for the state of Louisiana, but the Saints will continue to win.

Life will go on.

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