The most difficult aspect of the path forward for the New Orleans Saints and coach Sean Payton is that there is no frame of reference to draw from. There is no manual, no one you can call and ask, "What do you do when your head coach is suspended for a year?"
First and foremost, the organization -- and more specifically owner Tom Benson -- has to determine whether it will stay with Sean Payton as the head coach in 2013, when the suspension is lifted. Payton has brought the Saints and the city of New Orleans a great deal of success, and because of that, it is hard to imagine that Benson would bail on Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis at this point. That being said, in the coming days, Payton, Loomis and Benson have to create a structure that will guide the Saints through next year. Keep in mind the Saints are expected to be a true title contender next season. The window for this type of success closes very quickly in this league, and I doubt Benson is willing to just dismiss this year as being lost. Especially when New Orleans just happens to be hosting Super Bowl XLVII in February.
The first task is to choose an interim head coach. When Payton was injured last year, those duties fell to Joe Vitt. Vitt is a long-time coach in the league and has served as a head coach in this capacity before for both the Saints and the Rams when then-coach Mike Martz was out due to a bacterial heart infection. The problem is Vitt also was punished by the league and will miss the first six games of the season.
That leaves offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo as the obvious candidates. Carmichael is familiar with the way things have been run in New Orleans, having been with the organization since 2006. Spagnuolo is new to the team, but is coming right off three years as a head coach with the St. Louis Rams. Either choice would make sense.
The difficult part is deciding what kind of overall structure they will operate under. Obviously, Payton will set the tone for how he wants his team to be handled. After all, he is allowed absolutely no contact with the organization starting April 1. Whoever is chosen has to run a team the way he thinks is best. Being a head coach in the NFL requires making countless decisions on a daily basis. You cannot make those decisions wondering, "What would Sean want me to do?"
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The Saints have one of the largest staffs in the league. It's asking a lot of them -- and the players -- to follow the direction of a one-season head coach.
Here is an interesting question: When Payton was hurt last season, and Carmichael and Brees were in essence orchestrating the offense, Brees went on to have the best season of his career, blow past Dan Marino's long-standing single season passing mark with 5,476 yards. What happens if the interim coach takes this team to the NFC title game, or even the Super Bowl -- and wins. This is overwhelmingly a "nothing personal, just business" league. Does Benson ride the hot hand and dismiss Payton for "cause," eliminating Payton's $7 million-plus salary going forward?
Stranger things have happened.