|Will Tom Benson's grip on Payton be strong enough to keep him in New Orleans? (Getty Images)|
Fourteen months ago, the Saints announced a contract extension for coach Sean Payton that would keep him in New Orleans through the 2015 season. In doing so, owner Tom Benson proclaimed, "Our goal is to continue to build a tradition of winning here in New Orleans, and Sean represents that tradition."
Now that the tradition has been besmirched by the bounty scandal and Payton has been suspended for the entire 2012 season, it's possible Payton won't be coming back as the Saints head coach, after all.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the league has voided that contract extension, meaning Payton will be a free agent at the end of this season -- which, quite naturally, will make him one of the most attractive head coaches on the market.
For now, though, it's unclear if Payton will be a free agent after this season. CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora writes that "the likelihood of the contract fully voiding and Payton hitting the market appear slim."
The NFL hasn't made it any clearer with this statement: "Our office has made no determination on Sean Payton's contract status with the Saints for next year. All contracts between clubs and their employees must be approved by the commissioner, and we do not comment on specific terms of individual contracts. Any comment regarding the matter should come from coach Payton and the Saints."
Schefter -- who is adamant that the contract will not roll over an extra season just because Payton was suspended for 2012 -- speculates that one potential destination could be the Cowboys, who are struggling with Jason Garrett. Payton worked for the Cowboys as an assistant coach from 2003-05 and also owns a house in the Dallas area.
Last month at an SMU Athletic Forum event, Payton was asked if there was a chance he could coach the Cowboys in the future.
"I'd rather answer a bounty question," Payton said, via the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
The crowd laughed, and Payton said, “Right now, my focus is on staying with New Orleans and really getting back on the sidelines."
According to Schefter, the reason the contract was unacceptable to the NFL was due to a clause that would have allowed Payton to leave the team if general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended or fired by the Saints or left on his own.
“The league believed that any such language in Payton's contract would set a bad precedent for other coaching contracts and rejected the deal well before Loomis was suspended for the first eight games this season for his part in the bounty scandal,” Schefter writes. “Dating back to roughly the start of this year, the two sides engaged in numerous subsequent conversations to try to resolve the issue but never did.”
Meanwhile, commissioner Roger Goodell could find himself, in the words of a La Canfora source, "in a pickle here." Payton's people would maintain that the issue is clear and that he should be a free agent because his contract would expire at the end of this season and that he could take legal options to make it so.
But we would expect Benson to pursue recourse as well to keep his coach in place for at least another season.
"The best solution for the NFL," La Canfora writes, "would be for the sides to negotiate a new deal, but, as we've found throughout the bounty case, and subsequent appeals and legal action, these unprecedented cases can take twists and turns ..."
Payton's agent, Don Yee, declined comment to La Canfora.
While there is confusion about Peyton's status after this year, it's also unclear if Payton would leave the Saints' organization, especially since the franchise has remained loyal to him throughout the bounty scandal. But if another team (like, ahem, the Cowboys) wants to bury Payton under a mountain of money, it also wouldn't be surprising to see him move on to a new job.
For all the problems experienced by the organization in the past six months because of the bounty scandal, losing Payton would be the biggest blow of all.