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New Orleans • Sean Payton's many motivational ploys included a life-size poster of an exit door on the locker room wall at Saints headquarters. It served as a not-so-subtle reminder that finding the way out of the organization was easy for those who failed to buy into his way.
In a stunning twist, the NFL has shown Payton the door.
The move has left the Saints reeling, trying to figure out how to move forward without Payton at least for a year.
New Orleans has begun picking up the pieces.
A person familiar with the situation said Thursday three current assistants are strong candidates to take over in Payton's absence: Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team has not announced its plans.
The Saints also must orchestrate a front office and coaching staff shuffle to account for partial-season suspensions of general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games), who also coaches linebackers.
The person said it is too early to tell who will be named interim head coach or how reassignments across both the coaching staff and front office will shake out. The person added that Payton, who has now been with the club more than six years, and Loomis, who arrived 12 years ago, still had the backing of team owner Tom Benson.
Benson "continues to stand behind his guys," the person said.
The Saints could appeal the punishment handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday, but it was not immediately clear whether the Saints intended to explore that option.
New Orleans also doesn't know who they'll have on defense. The NFL still has not decided how to punish players who participated in the bounty system. The Saints may have to be ready to replace several defensive regulars for a few games.
A more immediate priority is having a plan in place to fill the voids left by Payton's suspension, which begins April 1, and the absence of Loomis. The GM will be able to oversee the draft and signings all the way through training camp, but will have to prepare his staff for his absence for the first half of the regular season.
As for Payton, his imprint and influence touched seemingly every aspect of the franchise.
The lone coach to lead the club to a Super Bowl championship has had a hand in everything from personnel decisions to the photos and slogans hanging in various meetings rooms and giant murals on the walls of the indoor practice field.
Payton has preached the importance of communication and coordination between not just the coaching staff, scouts and front office, but also the business and marketing sides of the franchise. Everyone in the building needed to be working toward the same goal.
A saving grace for the Saints could be the experience of the staff working under both Payton and Loomis, along with veteran leaders in the locker room, starting with quarterback Drew Brees.
Brees and Payton worked in lockstep, not just on the offense, but on other team-wide matters. Payton often consulted his quarterback on the mood of the locker room, and sought his input on when it might be a good idea to change routines or give players a day off.
One potential problem: Brees has said he isn't happy with the franchise tag. The Saints still hope to work out a long-term deal with Brees, if they can get closer on the money the AP offensive player of the year is seeking.
While things will definitely be different without Payton, the Saints don't have to start from scratch with his interim replacement.
The case for Carmichael:
He took over play calling when Payton broke his leg last season in a sideline collision. The Saints went 9-1 afterward and set NFL single-season records for total yards and yards passing.
He has been with the Saints since 2006, when Payton and Brees also arrived. Brees has often spoken of how much he likes working with Carmichael.
He was an offensive assistant in San Diego from 2002-2005 while Brees with the Chargers.
The case for Spagnuolo:
He is coming off a three-year stint as head coach in St. Louis.
Before that, he was the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants' 2007-08 championship team that contained Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.
He is known for bringing the kind of intensity to the sideline and locker room that Payton did.
The case for Kromer:
He has built up a decade of NFL coaching experience after a stint in the college ranks.
He arrived in New Orleans in 2008, the year before the Saints won their only Super Bowl, and oversaw one of the best offensive lines in the league.
As for the front office, Loomis has three experienced hands reporting to him: Pro scouting director Ryan Pace, college scouting director Rick Reiprish and director of football administration Khai Harley, who is seen as a Loomis protege in the area of structuring contracts to fit under the salary cap.
Pace has been with the Saints since 2001, Reiprish since 2004 and Harley since 2008.
Reiprish and his staff have been credited with several considerable finds in the draft, notably all-pro guard Jahri Evans out of Division II Bloomsburg, and star receiver Marques Colston, a seventh-rounder out of then Division I-AA Hofstra.
They also took a chance on tight end Jimmy Graham, a converted college basketball player who made the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season.
New Orleans will need more of that magic in this year's draft.
The Saints were docked second-round draft picks in both 2012 and 2013 as part of the bounty punishment, meaning New Orleans won't have a 2012 pick until the third round.
That will put a premium on the scouts to come up with the type of later-round contributors they have in the past.