Midway through the 2002 NFL season, when he was the New York Giants offensive coordinator, Sean Payton was stripped of his play-calling duties by then-head coach Jim Fassel.
It was regarded as a major setback to Payton's career.
Less than two years later, Payton is very close to completing a remarkable professional rehabilitation. ESPN.com has learned that Payton has reached an agreement in principle with the Oakland Raiders to succeed Bill Callahan as head coach.
Callahan was fired earlier this month after two seasons and a 17-18 record. The Raiders played in last year's Super Bowl, but Callahan came under fire this year by many veteran players who wanted to see him removed. Indeed, Callahan was following a 4-12 season. He was hired last week as the new head coach at the University of Nebraska.
League sources emphasized Tuesday evening that Payton, who this season was the assistant head coach to Bill Parcells in Dallas, has yet to sign a contract and there are still some issues to be resolved. "Remember who [Payton] is dealing with here," said a league source, referring to Raiders owner Al Davis.
The contractual components, though, are not expected to scuttle a deal that probably will be four years in length and worth $1.3 million to $1.5 million annually. One league source said he believed the two sides had "a strong framework" in place.
Payton, 40, will become the NFL's youngest head coach. The seven-year league veteran is about four months younger than Bucs coach Jon Gruden (Callahan's predecessor in Oakland) and about eight months younger than Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio.
"I'm very excited to meet coach Payton," Raiders center Barret Robbins told The Associated Press on Tuesday night.
"I'm certainly happy for the organization that the process is
over. You have to be happy, at least if you're on offense. One of
the first things I think he'll be thinking about is who the
defensive coordinator is going to be," Robbins said.
Raiders officials are not expected to announce Payton's hiring until Thursday. In addition to contractual loose ends, the ever-clever Raiders have at least one more reason for delaying an announcement: They would prefer that Payton be able to make some contacts with potential staffers while he technically is not a head coach, essentially to skirt league anti-tampering rules.
"Nobody's confirming or denying anything around here," Raiders spokesman Artie Gigantino told AP. "The process is continuing. As you know, he was here."
Of the candidates known to have interviewed with Davis, Payton is believed to be the only one called back for a second interview. He spent much of the day Monday, and also part of Tuesday, with Davis and Oakland officials.
Beyond Payton, Davis also interviewed Kansas City offensive coordinator Al Saunders by phone, and met in person with Dennis Green, who recently was named coach of the Arizona Cardinals, and Cowboys offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon.
While the Raiders are the last of seven teams to fill their head coach vacancy, the move to secure Payton was fairly expeditious, given Davis' past track record. The Oakland owner is fond of bringing in a lot of candidates, picking their brains in long sessions, and taking his time making a decision.
Payton does, though, fit the characteristic profile of a Davis head coach. Only once -- the hiring of Joe Bugel in 1997 -- has Davis ever brought in a coach with previous experience as an NFL sideline boss. Davis tends to favor young head coaches, usually with an offensive background.
Based on the team's offseason roster moves, Payton could be coaching some players who are nearly as old as him. If Jerry Rice, 41, returns for his 20th season, Oakland will have at least one player older than its head coach.
A one-time quarterback -- one season each with the Ottawa Rough Riders of the CFL and the Chicago Bears -- Payton moved into the coaching ranks with San Diego State in 1988. After nine seasons at the college level, he joined the Philadelphia Eagles staff in 1997, moved to the Giants in 1999, and the Cowboys in 2003.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.