Good riddance to Sean Payton, Falcons nemesis. Can Tom Brady be next?

Any list of all-time Falcons villains includes Sean Payton and Tom Brady near the top. Other coaches have won a lot of games against the Falcons. None did it while being as irritating as Payton. Brady has stolen dreams from many franchises, but he’s never done to others what he did to the Falcons on that nightmarish night in Houston five years ago.

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The Falcons finally are rid of one of their archenemies. Several news reports Tuesday said Payton, 58, has decided not to return for a 16th season as coach. The Falcons still could see Brady leave the NFC South, too. Brady, 44, is contemplating retirement after the Buccaneers were eliminated from the playoffs Sunday.

The Falcons are trying to get back to the playoffs. Doing so next season will require an infusion of player talent and some good luck. The task is easier if the Saints and Bucs, winners of the past two South titles, are weakened.

One down, one to go.

Payton won seven South titles in his 15 seasons as Saints coach. He was 21-9 against the Falcons with victories in seven of the past 10 meetings. The Saints nearly made the playoffs in their first season after Drew Brees retired, despite lots of injuries and other setbacks. It’s easy to see why Payton is calling it quits, anyway.

Credit: The Associated Press

Credit: The Associated Press

The Saints just had their playoff streak end at four years. For years, the Saints have figured out a way to sidestep salary-cap issues and field a talented roster. They’re finally starting to feel some pain. Payton had to decide if he wants to coach a team that figures to have less talent in 2022.

The Saints last year released or traded several players who shored up their depth. They pushed some cap charges into the future by restructuring contracts. The Saints again will have to part with players with high cap salaries and find cheaper replacements. They’ll have to use a lot of their cap money on a quarterback because Jameis Winston is set to become a free agent.

That’s probably the key for Payton’s decision. The Payton-Brees partnership ended when the quarterback retired after the 2020 season. The Saints ranked 19th in points scored in 2021. They’d never been worse than 12th with Payton as coach. Did Payton really want to start over (again) with another quarterback who isn’t nearly as good as Brees?

Then again, the Saints nearly made the playoffs this season with Taysom Hill and Trevor Siemian playing nearly 75% of the snaps at quarterback. They were 5-2 when Winston suffered a season-ending knee injury. Several other key players spent time on the injury or COVID-19 lists.

The Saints would have made the playoffs this season if not for the Rams blowing a 17-point lead to the 49ers on the regular season’s final weekend. The Saints also would have been in the postseason if they hadn’t blown a lead in the final minute against Falcons at the Superdome in November. That was after the Falcons blew an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter.

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 is a sore loser, a smug winner and a frequent whiner. Lots of coaches have some of those traits, and a few even manage to make them seem endearing. Payton is all of those things at once, and there was nothing charming about any of it. That’s before you even get to his attempted cover-up of the Saints’ bounty system that rewarded players for intentionally injuring opponents.

Brady’s personality isn’t the reason he’ll always be the bad guy for Falcons supporters. It’s that he’s so darn good, especially against the Falcons. With Brady at quarterback, the Bucs have swept the Falcons in four games an average margin of two touchdown. He’s never lost to the Falcons in 10 career games against them.

Of course, the 2017 Super Bowl loss to Brady’s Patriots is the one that hurt the Falcons more than any other. Hard to blame Brady for that, though. He couldn’t have saved the day if Dan Quinn’s team hadn’t given him an opening. If the Falcons had done their jobs, then the lasting image from that game would be Brady eating turf as Robert Alford ran by him with an interception for the touchdown.

Brady has played in three more Super Bowls since then and won two of them. He signed with the Buccaneers in 2020 and immediately won the franchise’s first Super Bowl since 2002 and his seventh in 10 tries. Brady was just voted to the Pro Bowl for the 15th time and hasn’t missed a game because of health since 2008. The Bucs would be among the favorites to win it all again next year if Brady returns.

That’s why it’s hard to see Brady retiring. He’s said that he would keep playing so as long as he’s performing at a championship level. In a podcast interview with Jim Gray this week, Brady said family considerations are a big factor in his decision. Few people around here would be sad to see Brady go spend more time with his wife and kids, but don’t count on it.

At least Payton is gone. He 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.

Good riddance.

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