Payton faces challenge in return to Saints

Sean Payton’s second rebuilding job might be more of a chore than his first.

Friday night’s news that Payton and the New Orleans Saints have agreed to the outline of a new contract extension should bring joy to a fan base that’s been suffering since the bounty scandal broke back in March. Go ahead and celebrate a bit, because this means Payton isn’t jumping over to the Dallas Cowboys.

But don’t automatically assume that Payton's stepping back in will instantly repair all that’s wrong with the Saints. Assuming the deal gets finalized and is approved by the NFL, which nullified Payton’s previous contract extension, the coach is going to have his work cut out for him when he rejoins the team.

The league previously has said Payton will be eligible to return from his season-long suspension the day after the Super Bowl. It’s a good thing Payton recently competed in a half-marathon, because he is going to have to hit the ground running if the Saints are going to get back to what they once were.

With Aaron Kromer coaching the first six games and Joe Vitt taking over after that, the Saints are 7-8 heading into Sunday’s season finale against Carolina. The Saints are missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

There’s no doubt Payton’s absence played a major role in the Saints’ decline. But does his return mean New Orleans will immediately bounce back?

Payton still will have quarterback Drew Brees and one of the NFL’s most imaginative offensive playbooks, but it’s not going to be easy to fix everything in one offseason.

The Saints are an aging team in some areas, and Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis are going to have to make some difficult decisions because New Orleans currently has $135 million committed toward a 2013 salary cap that is expected to be around $120 million.

That means veterans such as linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, safety Roman Harper and others could be salary-cap casualties. The Saints have a defense that’s ranked No. 32 in the league and might end up setting a record for yards allowed in a season. It’s not going to be easy to fix that defense when you don’t have salary-cap room. The offensive line and wide receiver corps also could use some work, but any improvements will have to come at bargain-basement prices.

But there is reason for optimism, too. Back in 2006, Payton took over a franchise and put it in the playoffs in his first season. In his fourth season, Payton won a Super Bowl.