METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton has decided to step away as the New Orleans Saints' coach after 16 years.
He totaled 15 seasons as the New Orleans coach because he was suspended in 2012 as a result of the NFL's bounty investigation.
Payton began his news conference Tuesday by thanking Saints owner Gayle Benson and her late husband, former Saints owner Tom Benson. Payton presented Benson with king cake -- a traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras dessert -- saying it was his version of TV character Ted Lasso's biscuit tradition.
Payton said he was glad Benson told him to spend some time away from the team for the past couple weeks before he made his decision, "Because it is a big decision that affects a lot of people."
Payton said he doesn't like the word "retirement" and said he can't rule out a return to coaching in the future. But "that's not where my heart is right now."
"I don't know what's next," added Payton, who said he has seen the reports that he has talked with TV or media outlets -- but that isn't true. Payton said he has even asked his agent, Don Yee, if he has heard anything differently. But Payton did acknowledge that media is something he thinks he could be interested in.
Payton, 58, has three years remaining on his deal with the Saints after signing his latest extension in 2019. So, New Orleans would maintain his rights if he decides to return to coaching -- and could require compensation if he wants to coach for another team.
In the meantime, the Saints will enter a new era with quarterback Drew Brees also gone, having retired before the 2021 season. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. could be considered among potential replacements for Payton, although New Orleans will certainly explore options outside of the building as well.
Payton made his mark as the winningest coach in Saints history and one of the NFL's all-time great offensive minds. He and Brees arrived together in 2006 and led New Orleans to the first Super Bowl victory in franchise history in 2009.
Payton is tied for 21st in NFL history with 152 career victories, according to Pro Football Reference data. His career record is 152-89 (.631 winning percentage), not including his season-long suspension in 2012. Payton is 9-8 in the postseason.
According to Elias Sports Bureau research, Payton and the Saints rank first in NFL history in average points scored (27.6 per game) and yards gained (391.2 per game) among all coach-team combos with at least five seasons together.
The Saints missed the playoffs for the first time in five seasons with a 9-8 record in 2021. But in many ways it ranked among Payton's most impressive coaching jobs, considering Brees' retirement, a roster that was depleted by major injuries, salary-cap cuts, COVID-19 issues and a hurricane evacuation to Dallas for the first month of the season.
Payton acknowledged in Week 18 how draining the season was.
"This stretch has been, I don't want to say exhausting, but it's been one of those where you just get on to the [next task]. Nothing surprises you," Payton said. "When you go all the way back to the start of the season, it feels like 2½ years ago we were evacuating to Dallas during the hurricane. I mean, it doesn't feel like that's part of this season.
"I'm trying to think of a good way to describe it. Like, there's a certain bar or temperament for news that you normally have. And then when it keeps coming and coming and coming via text or in meetings, then pretty soon that bar gets raised because you just keep getting hitting in the side of the head. And at some point you've gotta smile and then bow up a little bit and get ready for the challenge still."
Payton began his NFL career as a quarterbacks coach with the Philadelphia Eagles from 1997 to 1998 before becoming a QB coach and offensive coordinator with the New York Giants from 1999 to 2002 and then an assistant head coach/passing game coordinator with the Dallas Cowboys from 2003 to 2005.
Payton's longevity in New Orleans is a rarity in today's NFL. Only the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick has been with his team longer. Also, Payton had four seasons of 11-plus wins in his second decade with the Saints. Only three other coaches have done that in the Super Bowl era: Belichick (10), Tom Landry (eight), Don Shula (six).