New Orleans Saints  

 

Can Saints survive season without mastermind Sean Payton?

NEW ORLEANS -- Since the NFL first dropped this Saints bounty bombshell three Fridays ago, we've been waiting for the league to drop the hammer on New Orleans. And over the past few weeks, it seemed reasonable to think that once the penalties were revealed, we'd be able to dig up some precedent and shed light on how the Saints could move forward. Heck, just last season, head coach Sean Payton had to take a slight back seat after suffering a leg injury that required surgery. Surely, it'd be possible to find a few comparable examples to understand the Saints' plight going forward.

So much for that.

The NFL's sanctions, particularly Payton's one-season suspension, have no precedent. Go ahead. Find something close. The challenge is yours.

As the Saints attempt to overcome this Mike Tyson punch to the gut, they must step back and reassess this situation in its entirety. During a Wednesday appearance, NFL Network contributor Jay Glazer had just spoken to Payton and described the coach as "stunned." That description in itself provides a direct indication into everything you need to know about the Saints' mindset leading up to this fateful day: They weren't expecting the severity of this situation. Payton is a meticulous planner. He could not plan for this.

So now, in the coming months, Payton, owner Tom Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis must decide how to move forward with several questions to answer and many scenarios to consider.

Heading into the day, we could have predicted that, if Payton was suspended for a few games (even eight), assistant head coach Joe Vitt and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael would cooperatively steer the ship in Payton's absence. But now, Vitt has been suspended for six games, too, and Carmichael might not be deemed a person capable of becoming the team's head coach on his own.

So where do the Saints turn? Steve Spagnuolo, the team's new defensive coordinator, spent the past three seasons as a head coach with the Rams. He makes sense from an experience standpoint, until you consider another major question: Do you allow Spagnuolo to install a new program and a new system while you await Payton's return? Or do you simply try to bridge the gap?

No longer can the Saints simply view this as a short-term situation. They can't just get through a few games with a patchwork plan until Payton returns. Payton calls the plays, and he's a master of the craft. Payton runs the meetings, and he's overly meticulous in the process. Payton, even while considering Drew Brees' worth to this team, is the heartbeat and the brain.

Make no mistake, this is where the most brutal element of this punishment exists. The fines are big, of course. The loss of two second-round draft picks is harsh, yes. And the suspension of Loomis is decently severe, too. But the Saints will get through the cash hit. They're a team that can survive without the draft picks. And Loomis? Well, he can still be in the Saints' war room during the 2012 NFL Draft. His eight-game suspension won't start until the first week of the season, a time that most general managers consider to be the start of their offseason.

The Saints can survive those punishments (although the looming player punishments could change that perspective), but whether the Saints can survive the absence of their head coach is a completely different story. There is a perception within the league office that Payton acted with arrogance throughout this investigation. The Saints might now find out why: Payton is hugely important to the makeup of this team.

Payton won't be the only person humbled to the core by this process. Without him, the organization will be, too.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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