Black and Gold to Orange and Navy

Thoughts on Payton’s return as head coach of the Broncos

Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football.

Somewhere in a box of memories, I have a photo from Nov. 27, 1983 — the day I was lucky enough to attend the Saints’ season closer and see my hero, Archie Manning.

By this time Archie was no longer wearing black and gold — he had been playing for the Minnesota Vikings since three games into the 1983 season. He was still my hero, though.

Sitting low in the plaza on the visitors’ side, I saw him pacing the sideline behind the bench and yelled out, “Hey, Archie!” He turned, and I snapped the shutter button. When the image was developed, it showed Archie, shoulders slumped and a defeated look on his face. He didn’t end up playing in the game, which would be his last in New Orleans, and he retired after playing in just four games in 1984.

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I tell that story because another Saints hero, arguably the next in line to Drew Brees, the greatest Saint of all time, will eventually return to the Superdome wearing navy and orange rather than black and gold.

It won’t happen until the 2024 season, but Sean Payton, the winningest head coach in Saints’ franchise history, will return to New Orleans as the head coach of the Denver Broncos.

After a surprise retirement weeks after the 2021 season, Payton agreed to return to the sidelines in Denver after working as an analyst on one of FOX’s NFL pregame shows in 2022.

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He signed a five-year contract at the beginning of last month, and will seek to rebuild one of the league’s elite franchises into one of the league’s elite teams.

Payton, of course spent 15 years as the Saints’ head coach, and completely transformed the franchise into one of the NFL’s winningest teams during his tenure. After a 3–13 season in 2005, he came to New Orleans in 2006 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, recruited Drew Brees to be his field general, led the Saints to their first NFC championship and was named NFL Coach of the Year.

In 16 seasons with the Saints, Payton led the team to an overall record of 161–97, three NFC championship games (2006, 2009 and 2018), nine playoff berths and seven NFC South division titles.

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Though he retired, Payton had signed a five-year contract extension with the Saints in 2019, meaning New Orleans held his rights through 2024. That meant in order to hire him, the Broncos had to get permission from the Saints to not only hire him, but interview him.

The teams agreed to terms including that the Saints are to receive Denver’s 2023 first-round pick — 29th overall — and 2024 second-round pick in exchange for the Broncos’ ability to hire Payton and gain the Saints’ third-round pick in 2024.

The addition of the first-round pick, although late, could be pivotal for the Saints in 2023 and beyond. Before trading Payton, the team didn’t have a first-round pick in 2023. With questions up and down the roster, being millions over the salary cap (again!), and the reshuffling of the coaching staff, Dennis Allen will have a lot of pressure to reverse the team’s fortune. Having that pick may well extend his tenure in the Crescent City.

There will be a lot of football to play until Payton leads the Broncos into New Orleans. The 2024 schedule won’t be determined until the end of the coming season. When the two teams do meet on the battlefront, I suspect it will be a prime-time affair. At some point in the game, I’m sure a camera will catch Coach Payton, in his signature look, with his lips semi-puckered, looking up into the rafters reflecting on his time in New Orleans.

When it comes, I’ll think back to my photo of Archie.

Sure, there will always be a little wish that he was still our head coach — and there’s no guarantee he’ll find success in the Mile-High City. He made the decision to step away from the team he transformed into a perennial contender. There may be some saltiness that he left, and as a result, the team didn’t look so good without him. But Payton gave his best to the Saints. He lifted the team, and by extension the city, when both were at their lowest. He’ll always be a hero here.

That being said, nothing would be more satisfying than the Saints returning to their winning ways over this season and next and punctuating Payton’s return to the Big Easy with the Saints handing him a big L.

 

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