The presumption is coach Sean Payton will serve a season-long ban for his role in the Saints' "bounty" fiasco and return to the sideline come 2013, but NFL Network's Brian Billick doesn't believe that's a sure thing.
"What happens if the interim coach takes this team to the NFC title game, or even the Super Bowl -- and wins?" Billick asked in his NFL.com column on Thursday. "This is overwhelmingly a 'nothing personal, just business' league. Does (Saints owner Tom) Benson ride the hot hand and dismiss Payton for 'cause,' eliminating Payton's $7 million-plus salary going forward?"
Whoever takes over -- offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loom as likely candidates -- inherits a talented team that under normal circumstances should be considered among the favorites to reach Super Bowl XLVII, played in their own backyard at the Superdome.
Carmichael and Saints quarterback Drew Brees were a dangerous duo last season when Payton suffered a torn medial collateral ligament and broken tibia plateau in his left leg. With Carmichael running the show, Brees didn't simply get by -- he dominated. The scenarios are starkly different -- Payton will be nowhere near the team next season -- but if Brees and the Saints go far, could Payton be set free?
The larger question: Does Benson want to bring these men back into the fold and keep this story alive? Or start fresh, depending on what he sees from the Saints in 2012?
It's a situation worth monitoring, and one that has Jerry Jones -- the Cowboys owner who suffers from a well-advertised man-crush on Payton -- likely dreaming big dreams of the coach's next stop, if not in The Big Easy.