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When Netflix announced in December that it was releasing a movie about the time Super Bowl–winning Saints head coach Sean Payton worked as an assistant on his son’s youth team, the football world took notice … but only to comment on how actor Kevin James doesn’t look at all like Payton.
Something bigger may have been at play. That movie, Home Team, was released Friday—just three days after Payton sent shock waves through the NFL by resigning from the Saints. The timing is a remarkable coincidence. What are the odds that somebody would produce a feel-good children’s movie linked to Bountygate, a reprehensible scandal in which the league found that between 2009 and 2011 New Orleans coaches rewarded players for injuring opponents? And what are the odds that this movie would come out within days of Payton suddenly and stunningly stepping down?
It’s not necessarily pure chance. Payton is surely aware of the release of Home Team. James shadowed him in preparation to play this part, and Payton actually has a small role in the film. (More on that later.) Payton could’ve announced his interest in leaving the Saints at any point over the past few months and weeks. Instead, he waited more than two weeks after the end of the regular season. Did he intentionally time his announcement to coincide with the release of the movie about his life?
Home Team follows the formula laid out by The Mighty Ducks, except with Payton’s suspension from the NFL after Bountygate taking the place of Gordon Bombay’s court-ordered community service after a DUI. A hotshot coach gets involved with a hapless youth team, builds it up, and learns a little about himself along the way. The plot is taken from the actual story of what Payton did during his seasonlong suspension, as explained in this Grantland article by Chris B. Brown. Payton really did go to Argyle, Texas, and coach his son’s pee-wee team named the Warriors. The Warriors really did have a rivalry with a squad called the Porcupines, and Payton really did call NFL coaches for advice on how to stop the Porcupines’ single-wing offense. (In real life, Payton called Bill Parcells and Jon Gruden; in the movie, he calls Bill Cowher.) However, the movie plays up the story for dramatic effect. In the movie, the Warriors start out abysmal but develop to the point where they can compete with the Porcupines. In real life, the Warriors won every game but their two matchups against the Porcupines; they were blown out in both, by a combined score of 96-24.
Having just watched Home Team, I don’t think that it was intended to be entertaining. Clearly, this film is key to unlocking a deeper understanding of Payton’s stunning resignation from the Saints. Every deviation from the true story is a hint as to why Payton is moving on, and what he plans to do next. Here are all the ironclad lessons that we can take away from Home Team.
Payton Thinks the Saints Will Suck Without Him
This doesn’t exactly require detective work. The actual Sean Payton appears in the final minute of the movie, as a janitor helping clean the fictional Payton’s office. Real Payton is wearing a wig so blatantly fake that the point is obviously to draw attention to the fact that it’s the actual Sean Payton. He welcomes the fictional version of himself back to his office, takes a beat, and says, “We really suck without you.”
He’s right for the sake of the movie—the Payton-less Saints went 7-9 in the 2012 season, the first time they had missed the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl. Without his trusty coach, quarterback Drew Brees led the NFL in interceptions; the defense ranked 31st in the NFL in points allowed.
But Payton is also right about the present-day Saints, who are probably headed for a decline. They’ve lost their legendary QB and franchise coach in back-to-back offseasons, and they’re in salary cap hell without a solid replacement for Brees. Not to mention they’re a step behind all the other teams whose coaches didn’t wait two weeks after the end of the season to reveal that they’re not coming back.
He’s Not Done With Coaching
After arriving in Argyle, Payton the character has a beer with the Warriors head coach, played by Taylor Lautner. Did you forget that Lautner existed? According to IMDb, the Twilight star failed to appear in a single movie or TV show between 2016 and 2022. Clearly, he was just waiting for the perfect script. Then, after about six years of waiting, he apparently grew impatient and agreed to appear in a Kevin James–led movie about a disgraced NFL coach working with a youth football team.
Anyway, Payton talks to Coach Troy about his unhealthy relationship with his job. “Being head coach of an NFL team is like going 100 miles per hour, 365 days a year,” he says. But he concedes that he doesn’t know how to live his life any other way. Given the freedom to take a year off from the sport, Payton doesn’t go to a tropical resort to relax on the beach, but rather gets involved with his son’s pee-wee team, spending long nights scheming up plays in a ratty hotel room.
This seems to jibe with Payton’s actual statements about how even though he’s leaving the Saints, he doesn’t see himself being done with football. In his press conference earlier this week, he repeatedly stressed that “retirement is not the right word.”
Much like Lautner, Payton is just taking a step back—but he’ll jump back in as soon as he gets the right opportunity.
He Wants to Innovate
When Payton begins working with the Warriors, he changes everything. He moves the team’s star quarterback to running back. He moves the team’s largest player from defense to fullback. He schemes up a special approach for the championship game, in which all of his best offensive players line up on defense to stop his opponent’s attack. Despite leaving the NFL, Payton remains fascinated by the game and how to get the most out of his players.
But his true stroke of genius comes in the semifinal game. Much of the movie is about Payton’s attempts to connect with his son, who is living with Payton’s ex-wife and her new husband, a hippie played by Rob Schneider. (I’ll let you guess how many successful jokes are landed by Rob Schneider playing a hippie. Don’t take the over!) After getting fired from a vegan food store, Schneider’s character steals leftover ingredients to bake energy bars for the team. Unfortunately, every single player on the team gets sick and begins explosively vomiting before the game’s final play.
The referee demands that the game end due to the explosive vomit, but Payton recognizes an opportunity. He calls a new play that allows his team to take advantage of the fact that everyone is explosively vomiting. The Warriors score the game-winning touchdown because the opposing defense is more focused on avoiding barf spray than making a tackle.
Sometimes you put Taysom Hill at quarterback, sometimes you invent a new strategy where your quarterback vomits everywhere. Some might argue those are kind of the same thing. Regardless, Payton is clearly driven to innovate—keep an eye on that as he picks his next job.
We All Know Where Payton Is Going Next
There has been plenty of speculation about Payton’s next gig—and most of it’s centered around Payton returning to Dallas to lead the Cowboys, where he was the assistant head coach from 2003 to 2005 before signing on with the Saints. And wouldn’t you know it, Home Team directly addresses this possibility. At one point, Payton’s son asks him why he can’t be closer to his family, which lives in suburban Dallas. Specifically, he asks why Payton has to coach the Saints when he could be head coach of the Cowboys:
Before leaving his Saints office, Payton looks longingly at a picture from his Cowboys days. (Apparently, somebody at Netflix had to photoshop a picture of Bill Parcells so that Kevin James was standing next to him.)
But the surest sign that Payton is bound for Dallas comes from the plot of the film itself. When Payton gets to Argyle, the Warriors already have an assistant coach: a bumbling dweeb named Mitch. Most of the movie’s jokes come at Mitch’s expense: He doesn’t understand how football works, he pratfalls through tables, and his most recent wife left him for a 25-year-old busboy. Payton takes over and Mitch recedes into the background.
Mitch is played by Kevin James’s older brother, Gary Valentine. Say—you know what other team is coached by a bumbling dweeb who looks like he could be Kevin James’s older brother?
It’s all too clear. Home Team is a story about Payton leaving the Saints to go somewhere he’s truly needed. And where he’s truly needed is with the Dallas Cowboys.