Sean Payton left his 16-year Saints HC job for a FOX analyst gig, but the Super Bowl-winning head coach has said on multiple occasions he expects to return to the sideline. This prospective return is being monitored closely around the league.
Payton continues to be linked to the Chargers. While some key hurdles remain in the path of such a partnership, league buzz is not cooling down here. Some around the league believe Payton will wait out this job, per ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler, who calls the Payton-Bolts connection a rather poorly kept secret.
The Chargers first emerged as a Payton destination over the summer, when a report indicated the team’s combination of a quality roster — highlighted by quarterback Justin Herbert — and warm-weather locale was expected to generate interest from the veteran coach. Last month, a report indicated the Bolts gig would be the job Payton would covet the most. The Cowboys and Dolphins were also mentioned in July, but the former has seen its Mike McCarthy hire produce a contending team and the latter path is effectively walled off after the tampering penalty that came about this offseason.
Of course, the Chargers would need to create a head-coaching opening and send the Saints compensation for Payton. No coach has been traded since the Chiefs acquired Herm Edwards‘ rights in 2006. That haul only produced a fourth-round pick. Other HC trades — including the likes of Jon Gruden, Bill Parcells and Don Shula — have involved at least one first-round pick. It is unclear what it would cost for a team to poach Payton, but the Bolts also would need to can Brandon Staley to open the door to a Payton-Herbert partnership.
Staley is 14-13 as Chargers HC. The Bolts managed the rare feat of rostering the Pro Bowl starting quarterback and missing the playoffs — something that had not occurred in the AFC since the 1989 Bengals — last season, with Staley’s largely the culprit. More injuries have hit this season, with a handful of Bolts Pro Bowlers — Joey Bosa and Rashawn Slater chief among them — suffering major maladies that have impacted the team’s play. Still, after a season in which the Chargers ranked 29th in points allowed, they enter Week 12 in that 29th spot.
If the shorthanded Chargers rally and reach the postseason in Staley’s second year, it would be more difficult for the franchise to justify a coaching change. The prospect of a Payton trade clouds this situation, however. Payton, 58, has said it will take a lot to lure him out of the studio and added he will rule out certain organizations. Based on everything that has come out, the Chargers almost certainly are not one of the franchises Payton would deem unacceptable. Until it is confirmed Staley will return for a third season, the potential Payton addition stands to remain a storyline.
While acknowledging many are connecting Payton to the Chargers, ESPN’s Dan Graziano adds the Cardinals are a team to watch here. His through-2027 extension notwithstanding, Kliff Kingsbury can be classified as a hot-seat occupant. The Chargers would probably be preferable to the Saints compared to Payton landing with an NFC team, but Kyler Murray would also be a draw for offensive coaches — albeit not on the Herbert level. This marks the first Payton-Cardinals connection, however.