Fox Sports is targeting New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton as a candidate to succeed Troy Aikman should the former Dallas Cowboys star bolt for Amazon, sources tell Front Office Sports.
Payton has not committed to returning to the Saints for the 2022 season, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. The Super Bowl-winning coach is at the top of Fox’s hit list, said sources.
Aikman could leave for Amazon’s streaming coverage of “Thursday Night Football” next season.
“Prior to the end of the 2021 season, sources say Payton was approached by at least one TV network about working in media, and that appears to be a possibility, as well,” Rapoport reported Sunday morning.
Of course, it all depends on whether the 58-year-old wants to do TV or remain on the sidelines. The Dallas Cowboys could make a run at Payton, who has three years left on his Saints deal. Or he could take a “mini-retirement” in 2022, noted Rapaport.
With six NFC South titles and the 2009 Super Bowl championship under his belt, the 2006 AP Coach of the Year is still a threat on the field and some think he deserves consideration for the same award despite a 9-8 finish.
“[Fox] has to go big if they need to replace Troy,” said Eric Weinberger, the former executive producer at NFL Network and senior producer at Fox Sports. “I’m not sure Sean would be as bombastic as [former ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst] Jon Gruden. But I think Sean would be more opinionated than Gruden.”
Added another source: “Payton’s an offensive genius – and the NFL is all about offense now. Besides, he’s young enough to do TV for a few years, recharge his batteries, then go back to coaching if he wants to.”
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler cited Payton, Sean McVay, and Pete Carroll as targets for TV jobs.
With longtime quarterback Drew Brees gone to NBC Sports, the window may be closing on Payton’s 15-year Saints run. Especially after heart-breaking playoff losses during the 2017 and 2018 postseasons.
Payton wouldn’t be the first burnt-out NFL coach to give up the rigors of coaching for TV.
Bruce Arians of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers called games for CBS for one season before returning to win Super Bowl LV. Gruden, Dave Wannstedt, the late John Madden and Payton’s mentor Bill Parcells all gave up their coaching headsets for the TV studio.
Meanwhile, Aikman (who is launching his own beer brand) told FOS he’s not sure if he’ll be working for Amazon or Fox next season.
The Hall of Famer could keep his No. 1 analyst role alongside 20-year partner Joe Buck. Or he could reap a financial windfall and call games on Thursday night for Amazon and Sunday afternoons for Fox.
Aikman professed his admiration for the cast of the long-running pregame show with Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Michael Strahan, Jay Glazer, and his former coach Jimmy Johnson.
“Whenever I’ve been asked to do the [Fox NFL Sunday] pregame show with those guys, I have loved it,” Aikman told FOS.
Fox Has Other Options
Payton is not the only option if Aikman leaves.
But if Payton wants to leave for TV, Fox is a natural fit. With Aikman’s estimated $8 million salary off the books, Fox could afford to open its checkbook for Payton, who signed a five-year extension with the Saints in 2019 that pays him more than $9 million per season.
The Saints declined to comment. A Fox spokeswoman said the network won’t comment on “contracts or speculate on personnel hires.” However, Fox has publicly stated its interest in hiring Payton before.
A decade ago, Fox was the sole NFL TV network to offer Payton a job during his suspension without pay for the 2012 season as punishment for the Saints “Bountygate” scandal.
A splashy Payton hire by Fox would mimic ESPN’s recruitment of Gruden for “Monday Night Football” in 2009.
Like Payton, Gruden was a relatively young coach with a Lombardi Trophy when he transitioned to TV. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach quickly became ESPN’s highest-paid employee, making $6.5 million a year, before returning to the NFL via a 10-year, $100 million contract with the Oakland Raiders.
There are other connections linking Fox and Payton, who led the Saints to a 31-17 win over Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
Fox controls the NFL’s NFC package. And Payton has spent his pro coaching career in the NFC, including stints with the Saints, Cowboys, New York Giants, and Philadelphia Eagles.
Network executives get to know coaches and quarterbacks during pregame production meetings. That’s the fast track to NFL TV jobs. Just ask Romo, who impressed CBS Sports executives so much as the Cowboys QB that they handed the TV rookie their No. 1 analyst job over incumbent Phil Simms.
Then there’s the Jerry Jones factor. Jones likes having ex-Cowboys like Aikman, Romo, and Fox’s Daryl Johnston behind the mic. If he can’t get Payton as coach, he’d probably back having the former Cowboys assistant call the league’s most important Sunday afternoon games.