And now, with his season-long suspension set to begin Sunday, Payton is checking to see if mentor Bill Parcells would run the team while he serves his penalty for allowing a Saints assistant coach and players to run a bounty system.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the Saints were sanctioned for trying to take out specific opponents, Payton said Tuesday he will soon decide whether to appeal his suspension, something Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he can do through Monday.
Payton also said he was meeting with Parcells — who lives near the site of this week's NFL meetings — to discuss the plan for the season.
"For me to be down here, if I didn't call him or try to set up a time to see him, I'd probably get his wrath," Payton said.
Payton arrived at the league meetings about 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, and talked for 18 minutes with reporters in a resort hotel's lobby. He left for a breakfast meeting and departed shortly past 10 a.m., presumably for a meeting with Parcells. Payton said he, general manager Mickey Loomis — who is facing an eight-game suspension — and team owner Tom Benson are weighing a number of scenarios.
Among them: Does Parcells want to coach?
"I think it would just be considering all options, to be fair and really trying to do our homework on each option before making a decision," Payton said.
If Payton appeals, Goodell said he would "probably" allow him to continue working past the intended start of his suspension. Goodell also has said he would expedite the appeal process and his decision, meaning Payton might only get a few more days of work before having to step aside.
The NFL's investigation in New Orleans found that Payton initially lied to league investigators about the bounty program, at first denying its existence, and also instructed his defensive assistants to lie. Payton twice has apologized for his role in the bounty system, which offered payouts for knocking out opponents, saying he takes "full responsibility" for the program that operated for three years under his watch.
As many as 27 players could also face sanctioning for their role in the bounty scandal.
"As the head coach, anything that happens in the framework of your team and your program, you're responsible for," Payton said. "And that's a lesson I've learned. And it's one that it's easy to get carried away in regards to a certain side of the ball or more involved offensively or defensively. And that's something that I regret."
Payton said he is fully confident that he will coach the Saints again in 2013. He remained composed throughout his surprise interview Tuesday — NFC coaches were not scheduled to meet the media until Wednesday — although he did say that the day's "biggest challenge" was the realization that for the first time in 39 years, he may not have an active role in football as a player or coach.
"You go through a range of emotions that kind of hit you," the 48-year-old Payton said. "You're disappointed. You're disappointed in yourself that it got to this point. I think we're trained as coaches to begin preparation right away. I find myself reflecting on it, and you go through a lot of emotions."
He touched on several topics. Asked if he may work in broadcasting this season, Payton said anyone in his position would keep their options open. Asked about Gregg Williams, the former Saints defensive co-ordinator who ran the program and has been suspended indefinitely, Payton said he has not had contact with him about the penalties. Asked if bounties were what he envisioned when he asked Williams to build a defence, he replied, "No, obviously not."
Also unclear: How much contact Payton will be able to have with the Saints during his suspension.
"I think it's easier with a player because it exists, in other words, that protocol exists," Payton said. "But this is different. So what specifically are the guidelines, and then let's make sure we follow them. I think that process will take place and we'll continue to communicate and really acquiesce to the league in regards to, 'Hey, how do you see these specific things being followed?'"
Much of the conversation revolved around Parcells, the two-time Super Bowl winner as a coach who hired Payton as an offensive assistant in Dallas in 2003 and was a finalist for the Hall of Fame this season.
"He's a great teacher," Payton said. "Certainly I'm biased, having worked with him. But he's a Hall of Fame head coach. And I would also say there's some things probably set up in the framework of our program that would be exactly how he would have set those things up had he been the head coach here in '06. So there's some carry-over that way."
If Parcells returned to the sideline, he may have to wait another five years before becoming eligible for the Hall of Fame again. Parcells, who turns 71 in August, may not want to wait that long. Asked by Sports Illustrated on Monday if he had a desire to coach another team, Parcells said, "I don't think so."
In addition to the suspensions for Payton and Loomis, the league suspended assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games. Goodell also fined the Saints $500,000 and took away second-round draft choices in 2012 and 2013.
Goodell acknowledged on Monday that "non-contract bonus payments" — such as bounties — have been found around the league. The commissioner insisted the practice would be discontinued.
Arthur Blank, owner of NFC South rival Atlanta, praised Goodell's strong punishment.
"I think he dealt with it appropriately," Blank told ESPN.com. "I think it will be one of the most significant decisions he'll ever make as the commissioner. I think he'll be the commissioner for the next 30 years and I think people will look back and say he sent a message to the teams, the players, the coaches, everybody in the NFL and sent a message to the fans that, 'This is not what we're going to have in this league.' "
Payton would not argue he was being scapegoated.
"No, I accept this," Payton said. "I've heard that argument and I think trying to really look closely at how we and how I can improve has been probably a better way for me to handle this than to kind of vent or look outwardly at other programs. I try to take that approach."
For a franchise that dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and then captured its first Super Bowl four seasons later, now comes more tumult of the self-inflicted variety.
Payton said he first learned of the bounty program at the end of that Super Bowl season. He said Tuesday he didn't want this chapter to "taint or tarnish" the team's recent success.
"We'll get through this," Payton said. "This will be a challenge. ... You know, we've gone through a lot of adversity and we've won a lot of games in really a short window of time. And I know our players are leaders both within the locker room and the coaching staff will look at this as a challenge and a little bit as an opportunity."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in Palm Beach and AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this story.
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