NEW ORLEANS // Sean Payton's many motivational ploys included a life-size poster of an exit door on the locker-room wall at the Saints headquarters. It served as a not-so-subtle reminder that finding the way out of the organisation was easy for those who failed to buy in to his way.
The NFL has shown Payton the door, suspending him for the 2012 season after it was found that the Saints paid bounties to players who successfully injured members of opposing teams. The move has left the Saints reeling, trying to figure out how to move forward without their No 1 coach.
A person familiar with the situation said that three current assistants are strong candidates to take over in Payton's absence: the offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr, the defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and the offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.
The Saints also must orchestrate a shuffle of their management and coaching staffs to account for partial-season suspensions of the general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and the assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games), who also coaches linebackers.
It is believed that Payton and Loomis still have the backing of Tom Benson, the team owner, and the club could appeal the punishments handed down by Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner.
The Saints also do not know who they will have playing defence. The NFL still has not decided how to punish players who participated in the bounty system, and the Saints may have to replace several defensive regulars for a few games.
A more immediate priority is having a plan in place to fill the voids left by Payton's suspension, which begins on April 1, and the absence of Loomis. The GM will be able to oversee the draft and signings all the way through training camp, but will have to prepare his staff for his absence for half of the season.
Payton's influence seemed to touch every aspect of the franchise. The lone coach to lead the club to a Super Bowl championship has had a hand in everything from personnel decisions to the photos and slogans hanging in various meetings rooms and giant murals on the walls of the practice field.
Payton preached the importance of communication and coordination between not just the coaching staff, scouts and front office, but also the business and marketing sides of the franchise.
A saving grace for the Saints could be the experience of the staff working under both Payton and Loomis, along with the veterans in the locker room, starting with the quarterback Drew Brees.
Brees and Payton worked in lockstep. The coach often consulted his quarterback on the mood of the locker room, and sought his input on when it might be a good idea to change routines or give players a day off.
One potential problem: Brees has said he is not happy with the "franchise" tag the team placed on him. The Saints still hope to work out a long-term deal with him if they can get closer on the money Brees is seeking after passing for a record 5,476 yards last season.
Things will change in Payton's absence, but the Saints have candidates for his interim replacement.
Carmichael took over play-calling when Payton suffered a broken leg in a sideline collision last year. The Saints were 9-1 afterwards. He has been with the Saints since 2006, when Payton and Brees also arrived, and Brees has often spoken of how much he likes working with Carmichael.
He was an offensive assistant in San Diego from 2002 through 2005, while Brees was with the San Diego Chargers.
Spagnuolo is coming off a three-year stint leading the St Louis Rams. Before that, he was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants' 2007/08 championship team that stifled Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. He is known for bringing the kind of intensity to the sideline and locker room that Payton does.
Kromer has a decade of NFL coaching experience. He arrived in New Orleans in 2008, the year before the Saints won their only Super Bowl, and oversaw one of the best offensive lines in the league.
In the front office, Loomis has several experienced hands reporting to him, including the director of football administration Khai Harley, who is seen as a Loomis protege.
* Associated Press
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