While New Orleans Saints fans won’t see their team in the playoffs, they did get something to be happy about Friday night.
Head coach Sean Payton — who fans feared might leave the team to join the Dallas Cowboys after the contract extension he received in September 2011 was rejected by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — will remain with the Saints.
Saints spokesman Greg Bensel confirmed the new extension for Payton via email Friday evening.
Citing league sources, Fox Sports first reported the Saints and Payton, who is eligible to return from a season-long bounty-related suspension after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, had agreed in principle on a new contract.
While there were few details about the extension, ESPN reported that it was a five-year contract.
Saints punter Thomas Morstead, who Wednesday was voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time, quickly welcomed the news when he tweeted: “BOOM HE’S BACK!!!!”
ESPN reported Nov. 4 that Payton, who is serving his suspension for misleading league investigators looking into the team’s alleged bounty program, had his original contract extension voided.
According to the report, the contract wasn’t approved because it included a clause that would allow Payton to leave if Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis were suspended, fired or left the team — which Goodell said would set a bad precedent for other contracts.
That quickly led to talk that Payton, whose two children live in the Dallas area, would become a coaching free agent and possibly seek a job with the Cowboys.
Before being hired by the Saints in 2006, Payton was the Cowboys assistant head coach under Bill Parcells from 2003 to 2005. In that time, Payton developed a solid friendship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
When the report that Goodell nixed the original contract extension came out in November, the Cowboys were 3-5, and there was rampant speculation Jones would dump third-year coach Jason Garrett at the end of the season and likely turn to Payton.
But with five wins in the next six games, Garrett rallied his team back to a tie for the NFC East lead going into last Sunday’s matchup with the Saints in Cowboys Stadium — which was dubbed the “Sean Payton Bowl” by one national writer.
Even though the Saints beat the Cowboys in overtime 34-31, Saints fans got some good news when Fox’s Jay Glazer reported before the game that Jones would not replace Garrett regardless of what happened in their final two games.
“I didn’t hear that and have not even thought about anything different than Jason being our coach,” Jones said after the game. “I know that I shared with nobody living anything other than Jason Garrett. But seriously, to be real serious about it, I have no thoughts about making a coaching change.”
Despite the setback to the Saints, Garrett and the Cowboys have a chance to win the NFC East title and make the playoffs for the first time since 2009 if they beat the Washington Redskins on Sunday night.
Heading into last week’s game with the Cowboys, several Saints said they weren’t worried about Payton leaving because of his affinity for the team he and Loomis have built and he likes the fans and community as well.
“I don’t think about it. … I’m not worried about it,” quarterback Drew Brees said then, echoing comments he made three days after the report came out. “I truly believe that he’ll be here, and it will all sort itself out.”
“We let (Payton) know we appreciate him, and we have something good here,” added cornerback Jabari Greer. “He knows what we have here. If he makes a decision, we’ll embrace him, we’ll accept him.”
During his time with the Saints, Payton has compiled a 67-37 overall record — including a 5-3 postseason mark. He led the Saints to 41 wins from 2009 to 2011, counting the playoffs.
Under Payton, the Saints have won three NFC South titles and have played in two NFC Championship games. They claimed the conference title in 2009 and went on to a 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV — the only Super Bowl appearance in the franchise’s 46-year history.
Payton needs 27 more victories to overtake Jim Mora, who won 93 games from 1986-96, as the winningest coach in club history.
The Saints, who have played the 2012 season under two interim coaches — Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt — are 7-8 going into Sunday’s season finale with the Carolina Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The last time the Saints didn’t make the playoffs was in 2008, when they finished 8-8.