"It is important that we keep Sean Payton's philosophy front and center during this season," Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement released by the team Thursday. "Sean has been the driving force behind the tremendous success our team has enjoyed during the past six years, (and) his leadership will be missed. But we need to set a course of action that gives us the best chance to win this season without our head coach, and that is why I am announcing today that Joe Vitt will assume Sean's duties."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Payton for the entire 2012 NFL season for violations of the league's bounty rule over a three-year period between 2009 and 2011. Vitt, who coaches the Saints' linebackers, will serve a six-game suspension once the season starts.
The Saints aren't leaning toward any particular candidate to replace Vitt when he begins serving his suspension, a source familiar with the team's decision-making process told NFL.com's Steve Wyche. The Saints will go through the offseason before making that decision, although the leading candidates are defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.
What could help the Saints decide who will run things once the season starts is that they have five preseason games -- as opposed to the four that most teams have -- because they play in the Aug. 5 Hall of Fame Game against the Arizona Cardinals. That additional game could help coaches become more familiar with the transition that awaits once Vitt has to step aside.
The Saints' "bounty" program offered cash bonuses for big hits that knocked targeted opponents out of games or hurt them enough that they required help getting to the sideline.
Vitt has been an interim coach before, going 4-7 with the St. Louis Rams in 2005 while Mike Martz was sidelined with endocarditis.
"We considered a number of great options to handle Payton's duties both internally and externally, but believe this will provide the most seamless transition for our players and our coaching staff, allowing our offensive and defensive staffs to remain intact with the fewest changes," said Loomis, who must serve an eight-game suspension once the season starts. "This is the same structure we used last season during Sean's knee injury."
Added Saints owner Tom Benson: "This is about our program, and the continued success of our program. Joe has been part of building our success along with our head coach, Sean Payton, and our general manager, Mickey Loomis. We are looking forward to the start of the offseason program, the NFL Draft, our minicamps and training camp. We are looking forward to the start of our season, as I know that all of our fans are, and we are looking forward to competing and winning a championship right here in our own city, in our own stadium this year."