METAIRIE — Sunday’s game with the Dallas Cowboys has caused many a New Orleans Saints fan to shudder this week, and it’s not because they’re afraid of losing another game to end the team’s slim playoff hopes.
What they’re afraid of losing is suspended coach Sean Payton, possibly to the Cowboys because of Payton’s friendship with owner Jerry Jones and the fact that Payton’s two children live there, if he can’t come to an agreement on a new contract extension with the Saints.
In other words, the Saints could lose by winning Sunday in Cowboys Stadium.
A contract extension Payton agreed to a year ago was rejected by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell because it would have allowed Payton to void the deal if General Manager Mickey Loomis were suspended, fired or left the team — which the league said set a bad precedent for other contracts.
The report immediately fueled speculation that Jones, whose team was 3-5 at the time, would dump Jason Garrett and hire Payton, who was the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator from 2003-05 before taking the Saints’ job in 2006.
Since then, the Cowboys have won five of their past six games going into Sunday’s matchup, and, at 8-6, are in the hunt for the NFC East title with games against the Saints and division tri-leader Washington remaining.
The Cowboys’ late-season surge has allayed some of the fears of Saints’ fans, but not all.
For many Saints players, however, Payton’s uncertain contract situation is a non-issue at this point.
“I don’t think about it. … I’m not worried about it,” quarterback Drew Brees said Wednesday, echoing comments he made three days after the Payton report came out. “I truly believe that he’ll be here, and it will all sort itself out.
“With everything else going on, (I’m) really trying not to think about the things that would just be distractions at this point.”
At the same time, Brees acknowledged he understands why it’s such a big deal with the Cowboys coming up. It also comes on the heels of a national report Sunday that said Payton and the Saints aren’t close to a new deal.
“We also know how the whole ‘sources’ thing works, don’t we?” Brees said. “Sources can pretty much say whatever you want them to say because you never really have to be accountable for it.
“Like I said, I’m not worried. I’d be shocked if he wasn’t here next year, but right now there are plenty of other things for us to think about or worry about. Once the season ends, we’ll get back to that.”
Free safety Malcolm Jenkins, one of the team’s defensive captains, said he hasn’t paid any attention to the reports.
“It’s just part of the business and it’s nothing that we can control,” he said. “From my standpoint, and I think what everybody thinks, is that Sean will be back unless something else happens.
“We’ll deal with that when it comes,” Jenkins added. “For now, Sean Payton is our head coach. It’s just like a player that has a contract he has to work out … there’s going to be negotiations and the whole situation will play out.”
Jenkins, who is on injured reserve with a hamstring problem, and running back Pierre Thomas said the Saints are just trying to win their final two games — starting with the Cowboys game — to finish at 8-8.
That would be a big accomplishment for a team that started 0-4 and is expecting Payton to be back in the next month.
“We don’t hear anything because we’re so focused on what we need to accomplish for the rest of our season,” Thomas said. “Our goal is here. Once we get our season out of the way, then we’ll worry about that. We’ll try to figure out what’s happening and what’s going on with Sean.
“At this point we, as players, are not too worried,” he said. “We would love to have Sean back, but that’s out of our hands. That’s between Mickey, Mr. (Tom) Benson, and him. That’s not between us.”
Wide receiver Devery Henderson said it’s all speculation at this point.
“We don’t feed into it or try to read into anything like that, we just feel like he’ll be back,” he said. “There are some things that we can’t control, but in our hearts we believe he’ll be back.”
“We let (Payton) know we appreciate him and we have something good here,” cornerback Jabari Greer said. “He knows what we have here. If he makes a decision we’ll embrace him, we’ll accept him.
“We’d encourage it (to come back), but the business of football is a beast and it’s unforgiving.”
Garrett, who was also on the hot seat last season because the Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs, also ignored the rampant speculation about his job security and the possibility Payton could replace him.
“I’m focused on what we need to do here,” Garrett said on a conference call with Louisiana reporters. “Sean is a great coach and good friend of mine. He has done a great job in this league for a long time.
“I’m focused on doing my job as well as I can do it each and every day, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”