METAIRIE, La. -- Instead of going into the playoffs, the New Orleans Saints went Monday into at least a short period of uncertainty -- depending on whom you talk to -- as they started to look ahead to the 2017 season.
Before the Saints do anything to start the recovery from a third consecutive 7-9 season, the first time the franchise has experienced three straight losing seasons since they had seven in a row from 1993-99, they have to know who their head coach is going forward.
While Sean Payton thought he put rumors and reports about him coaching elsewhere after the 2015 season to rest when he signed a five-year, $45 million contract extension, he's back in the news once again.
He indicated a year ago that his desire was to stick around and finish the rebuilding job he had started, but the reports of him possibly being traded -- this time to the Los Angeles Rams -- started when the Saints all but fell out of the playoff chase a couple of weeks ago.
The Saints still featured the NFL's top offense this season with Drew Brees throwing for a fifth 5,000-yard season, Mark Ingram rushing for 1,000 yards and Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas each having 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
Only this time, the Saints had a much improved defense. While they ranked 27th in total yards allowed and were last in pass defense, they were 14th against the run and seemed to have a better grasp of things under new fulltime defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
With some key pickups on that side of the ball, they will have a chance to add some more in the draft and in free agency, where they will have some money to spend for a change to acquire more pieces.
After telling reporters Monday morning it would be "silly" to address every report, Payton was asked by former Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert on the WWL Radio Saints Coaches Show later Monday if he could say he has no interest in coaching any team but the Saints in 2017.
"My plan is definitely to be back here," Payton said. "Shoot, I've got four more years on a contract here, and I plan on honoring that."
At the same time, Payton noted that he's already focused on putting a wrap on the 2016 season and starting the process of shaping the roster that will take the field in 2017.
"We start on evaluations this week," Payton said. "We start on, obviously, getting prepared for free agency. ... That's what I'm doing."
There have been multiple reports that Payton and the Rams have a mutual interest since the NFL Network first reported the Saints would be willing to part with Payton with "little compensation in return."
Payton took time Monday to label a published report that he met with general manager Mickey Loomis after Sunday's 38-32 loss to the Atlanta Falcons for an hour as "completely false" and noted they meet after each game.
"We come in, have a Gatorade, first thing I ask Mickey is (whether key officiating calls were correct), go through every penalty, then we eat a cheeseburger and get on the plane (home)," Payton said.
"But if I am going to answer questions to a report like that, which is inaccurate, we only just feed or turn the rumor mill. I won't, and that's just the way it is. And you know what? It's tough."