At the end of an 18-minute Tuesday morning media session -- his first public comments since the NFL handed down his one-year suspension -- New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was asked about the certainty that he would be coaching in 2013: "100 percent certain. Thanks -- we'll see you guys."
That put the capper on a wide-ranging informal press conference at the NFL owners meetings in Florida, in which Payton took questions on several subjects. It was his first public forum since Payton, several other coaches, general manager Mickey Loomis, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams were hit with a group of sanctions unprecedented in their depth and severity for their participation in, and obfuscation of, the team's "pay-for-performance" practices.
Most notably, Payton addressed the rumors that he and Loomis would be meeting with Bill Parcells in the near future to discuss a possible plan in which Parcells would serve as interim head coach while Payton is out for the 2012 season. Payton worked for Parcells in Dallas from 2003 through 2005.
"Well, we really haven't gotten into it," Payton said of the conversations he's already had with Parcells since his suspension. "I really called him more as a mentor, someone to shoot some ideas off of. That would be very consistent with what I would do, regardless of this being ... obviously, this is different, but I speak to him pretty regularly in regards to advice. So, the dialogue I had with him would be pretty normal, especially in this area.
"In fact, for me to be down here [in Florida], and if I didn't call him or try to set up a time to see him, I'd probably get his wrath. But the specifics regarding him coaching -- and I've read a lot of the reports -- that would be something that Mickey and I, and our owner, and Bill would deal with at a later time. Right now, it's been more as an advisor or a parent, and that's really what he's been to me."
Payton was then asked what Parcells' best advice was to him. "Just in handling this candidly and being upfront. Understanding the specifics that operate within our league, and he's been very supportive."
But if the Saints were able to convince Parcells, who seems to shake the coaching bug just as easily as he catches it, what would the benefits be? "Well, you're asking me, 'What are his great strengths,' and I would say to you, he's a great teacher -- certainly I'm biased, having worked with him. He's a Hall of Fame head coach, and I would say that there are probably some things set up within the framework of our program that are exactly how he would have set those things up, had he been the head coach [in New Orleans] back in 2006. So, there is some carryover that way."
At the 2009 scouting combine, I asked Payton what he specifically learned about setting up a coaching staff and running a team during his time with Parcells.
"In all aspects of the program and the organization -- there are so many things he has a vision for. From the training room to the weight room to the offseason program, training camp, scheduling, there was something you learned daily from him. You spend three years with someone like that, in an office -- obviously, we spent a lot of time together during the season. But those three years were quite an education for all of us -- Tony Sparano, Todd Haley. We were all on the offensive side of the ball, we were there for a long time, and we were all learning. You get some battle scars, but that's part of the deal."
Payton now has very different battle scars, and there may be more to come. His reputation as a coach has taken a severe hit, and while he's not as much the poster boy for football violence gone wrong as former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will always be, the fact that Payton knew what was going on and tried to shift the truth will stick to him for a long time. So soon after the suspension was handed down, Payton seemed more concerned with the big picture -- that 2012 would be his first year out of football in a very long time.
"Certainly you take lumps, and I have taken them before, but I look forward to getting back, and I look forward to winning, being successful, and being a part of ... I think the biggest challenge is driving in here this morning -- it will probably be 39 years as a Pop Warner player, a high school player, college player, college coach, professional coach, this is potentially the first of 39 years where you're not directly involved in football for a season. That said, I look forward to getting back into this position, and I look forward to winning."
No matter who the Saints' next head coach is, there's still come confusion as to how much contact Payton will be allowed to have with the team. "That's a great question, and I'm not answering this for the commissioner, either. But I think that within the framework of the next few weeks, having a clear definition in regards to ... I think it's easier with a player, because that protocol exists. But this is different. So, what specifically are the guidelines, and let's make sure we follow them. That process will continue to take place, and we'll acquiesce to the league in regards to, 'Hey, how do you want these specific things to be followed?'"
At his Monday afternoon press conference, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was vague on the process, which was understandable -- there's never been a "death penalty" situation for one NFL team before, Payton has until April 2 to appeal the ruling if he so chooses, and everyone seems to be scrambling around to try and find the best protocol.
"They are suspended from their duties and they won't be allowed into the training facilities during that suspension," Goodell said of the Saints' suspended coaches. "I do not expect them to have contact with the team, but we will also have to be reasonable about that. But you are not going to be coach from home, if that is what you mean."
Should Payton choose to appeal the suspension, he would most likely do so in order to have more time to get his ducks in a row -- a reduction or reversal is highly unlikely. He would maintain his status as the team's head coach during the appeals process, though Goodell has said that any appeal would be fast-tracked, and that would give Payton more time to understand the parameters of a very unique situation.
"Yeah, I think that can be a plus," Payton said.
"It is a hypothetical," Goodell said, when asked if Payton could have his suspension reduced on appeal, especially if he brought forth new information. "If he decides to appeal, we will go through the process. We did meet twice. We had extensive discussion, but I can't answer that question. If he decides to appeal, I assume it is because he would like to discuss it further ... You are going to have to ask Sean that. I have the information that I have. I have discussed it with him twice. If he has something else he would like me to consider, I will certainly do that."
For now, it's up to Payton and Loomis to find the Saints' interim head coach. Goodell said that they will have to follow the Rooney Rule, which requires any team to interview at least one minority coach before making a decision, and that coaches from other teams can be contacted if the Saints organization sees fit to do that. But with possible suspensions hanging over as many as 27 different current and former Saints players, it's questionable just how attractive that one-year position will be.
"It is a decision that has to be made by the team," Goodell said. "He is suspended as of April 1. So the Saints are going to have to make that decision. I believe the Saints are going to make the decision about who is going to be hired. That is their decision. You are dealing in hypotheticals. There is only one person who signs the check."
We'll soon see if Bill Parcells' name is on it.
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