- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas -- You have to wonder what Jerry Jones' thought process has been regarding some assistant coaches that left the Dallas Cowboys.
Miami's Tony Sparano and Kansas City's Todd Haley were two offensive minds that departed for head-coaching jobs.
On Saturday night, Jones will watch Sean Payton, another former assistant coach that got away, stalk the opposing sideline when the Cowboys visit the undefeated New Orleans Saints at the Superdome.
The Cowboys come into this game with a two-game losing streak and fighting for their playoff lives. Payton, meanwhile, has the Saints playing for home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
"I certainly consider him a friend and someone that I would be close to in the profession," Payton said of Jones. "It was a great opportunity for me to work for a great organization. I said that earlier, having been at New York for four years and then on to Dallas, I would never take those opportunities at all for granted because I realize how special they are. He is truly one of the greatest owners and I have a great relationship with him."
Payton's first meeting against his former team came in 2006, when the Saints beat the Cowboys 42-17 at Texas Stadium.
"In '06, you remember when he ran the score up on us," Cowboys receiver Patrick Crayton said. "He took that personal. We can't let him take this one personal when we go to New Orleans."
Payton moved up the ranks within the Cowboys' coaching staff under Bill Parcells. Payton left the New York Giants after four seasons and came to Dallas in 2003. In 2004, Payton had a chance to become the Oakland Raiders' head coach, but Jones gave Payton a $500,000 raise to remain the passing-game coordinator.
Since leaving for the Saints in 2006, Payton has compiled a 38-23 mark and made two playoff appearances.
"I'd just really got to Dallas and been there around eight or nine months and had just moved the family once and felt like there was still part of me that was still learning and it didn't feel right," Payton said of the Raiders' offer. "I said this before in somewhat of a humorous fashion, but typically if Jerry [Jones] is the last guy you see in a decision like that, you end up staying."
In the four seasons Parcells coached the Cowboys, there was plenty of yelling, screaming and coaching going on. Tight end Jason Witten said he remembers all the fights Parcells and Payton got into. The Cowboys went 34-30 under Parcells and reached the postseason twice.
And while Parcells has become the executive vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins, three of his former Cowboys assistants have gone on to become head coaches.
After the Dolphins went 1-15 in 2007, Sparano turned around the Dolphins in his first season, guiding Miami to the AFC East title last season. He has yet to coach against the Cowboys.
Haley and the Chiefs battled the Cowboys before succumbing in overtime on Oct. 11.
"I just knew that we had good coaches there," Sparano said. "I knew that Bill [Parcells] put together a good staff. I just thought there were good people around there. ... Certainly all had head-coaching characteristics about them and outstanding work ethics. You knew that if given the opportunity, at some point, they would be successful at what they did."
But did the Cowboys see this in Payton? While in Dallas, Parcells liked to slow the game down by running the ball, despite having two coaches -- Payton and Haley -- who loved to throw it.
This season, the Saints lead the NFL in scoring and total offense. They have scored more points (466) than any team in franchise history, and Payton's offense has turned quarterback Drew Brees into a star. His 10 300-yard passing games are the most in a single season in league history.
"I knew he was this good," Crayton said of Payton. "Bill [Parcells] is not a shoot-first guy. He's like, 'Let me load up the gun and aim a little bit.'
"Payton's got six in the chamber: 'I'm going to fire until I'm empty.'"
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne