Villain No. 12 Sean Payton: More trouble than just choke sign

The AJC counts down the Top 12 villains in Atlanta (and sometimes the entire state of Georgia) sports history, beginning with No. 12, Sean Payton.

We have dubbed them Atlanta’s Dirty Dozen – the villains of Atlanta Sports. We use the term villain loosely. Some are simply sports figures who proved a thorn in our side, stood in our way, or prevented greatness. OK, some are true villains. We’ll let you decide who is who.

In an 11-week series, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will highlight one of the Dirty Dozen. We will present the series in ascending order, from No. 12 to No. 1. Each story will be accompanied by a video with our staff discusses why each made our list.

We invite you to provide your thoughts each week. Email us at sportstips@ajc.com. We will publish some of the comments each week. Finally, at the series’ conclusion Oct. 15, with the No. 1 villain, we will post a poll allowing you to vote on your top villains.

For the decades, the rivalry between the Saints and Falcons was the South’s best kept secret.

Both teams, who started play in the late 1960s, were downtrodden organizations with no history of sustained winning. That changed for the Saints in 2006 when they hired Sean Payton and for the Falcons in 2008 when they hired Mike Smith.

The battles always were fierce, but as both teams turned into regular playoff contenders, the nation – finally – took notice.

In his first season, the Saints were 10-6 and lost to the Bears in the NFC Championship game. The Saints blasted the Falcons 23-3 on Sept. 25 and 31-13 on Nov. 26 at the Georgia Dome. It was the first of nine playoff appearances for the Saints, which included a victory over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 regular season.

Payton won seven NFC South titles in his 15 seasons as Saints coach.

He was 21-9 against the Falcons, with victories in seven of the last 10 meetings. After a year out of the game, he was hired as the Denver Broncos head coach this past offseason.

The Payton-Drew Brees partnership ended when the quarterback retired after the 2020 season.

The Falcons and Saints used to be partners in that kind of ineptitude. The Falcons got good first. They went to their first Super Bowl with coach Dan Reeves and quarterback Chris Chandler. The Falcons kept winning with coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan, then were back in the Super Bowl with Ryan and Dan Quinn.

Payton and Brees helped the Saints catch up to the Falcons. They lapped the Falcons by winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl and then piling up more South titles, even as Brees got old. That track record would earn Payton animosity from Atlanta even if he seemed like a nice guy. His public persona elevated him to the level of villain.

Payton’s tenure was marred by his attempted cover-up of the Saints’ bounty system that rewarded players for intentionally injuring opponents.

Payton was a very good coach for a long time with the Saints, which made him a constant pain in the neck for the Falcons. Payton also is unlikeable, which made him a proper villain for the Falcons.

Payton “endeared” himself to Falcons’ fans during a 2017 game when he gave running back Devonta Freeman the ‘choke’ sign.

“I don’t remember that,” Payton said after the game.

Freeman, who missed a key block in the Falcons’ Super Bowl collapse in February 2017, saw the gesture.

“I saw it,” Freeman said. “That man don’t know nothing about choking. He ain’t from where I’m from. He’s a good competitor, so the competin’ probably came out. But you don’t let that bother you. He don’t know nothing about choking.’”

The Falcons won the game 20-17 as the Saints arguably choked on their last drive, which ended with a soaring interception by Deion Jones in the end zone.

The Falcons were understandably a little sensitive about the choke sign after the team blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl to New England.