NFL commissioner Roger Goodell says his office has communicated with suspended New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton about his eventual reinstatement, and Goodell did not eliminate the possibility of Payton rejoining the franchise before the Super Bowl.
Payton would like an adjustment on the suspension so it would end at the conclusion of the regular season as opposed to after the Super Bowl, a source close to the coach suggests.
Goodell said Wednesday that he and Payton briefly have discussed the reinstatement process they will follow and that more focused conversations are planned after the upcoming holidays.
With former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue issuing final determinations on the Saints' bounty scandal Tuesday, Goodell was asked whether he might permit Payton to return to the NFL from his historic season-long suspension before he is eligible for consideration, which is immediately after the Feb. 3 Super Bowl in New Orleans.
"I don't want to say he could be because, again, we are in the early stages," Goodell said as he left for the airport after the NFL owners meetings in Irving, Texas. "We are starting to talk about it."
The NFL has reason to be concerned with how Goodell will be received in New Orleans during the Super Bowl and whether the week there becomes a protest of the sanctions imposed on the Saints' franchise, coaching staff and players for the bounty program. Tagliabue confirmed Goodell's findings in the bounty case but determined he punished too harshly. He then vacated the suspensions of four current or former Saints players.
There is also the possibility that Payton might not be committed to coaching the Saints and could be pursued by a team such as the Dallas Cowboys if owner and general manager Jerry Jones fires coach Jason Garrett.
Goodell recently provided Payton and the Saints permission to attempt to resolve the contractual issues that prevented the league office from approving the multiyear extension the parties agreed to in 2011. Goodell rejected it because of a clause that would have voided the agreement and permitted Payton to leave the franchise if generall manager Mickey Loomis was suspended, fired or otherwise left the front office.
Goodell said he was uncomfortable with the precedent that would have created for NFL head coaches and the instability that might have resulted. The league allowed Bill Parcells to have a similar agreement with the Miami Dolphins, but he was an executive in charge of football operations and not the head coach.
When asked whether he would consider Payton a coaching free agent if he fails to sign a new agreement with the Saints, Goodell said that was an issue for the team and Payton, not the league office.
Information from ESPN NFL senior writer John Clayton was used in this report.