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Saints head coach Sean Payton. (Associated Press)<br>

Saints head coach Sean Payton. (Associated Press)

Gazzolo: Another standoff awaits Saints

Last Modified: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 11:47 AM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Maybe with their victory over Dallas last Sunday, the Saints future got a little more murky.

Winning the game might mean the Saints could now lose the Sean Payton sweepstakes.

If the Cowboys lose on Sunday, Payton might become the biggest coaching free agent in NFL history.

His options could grow even greater if the Chicago Bears lose or even win and miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six season.

Suddenly, Payton could have three teams, maybe more, in need of his services. Dallas, Chicago and New Orleans would have claims on Payton’s heart.

He owns a home in Dallas, grew up just outside Chicago and once even played quarterback for the Bears, all be it during the strike of 1987, and has turned around the franchise in New Orleans.

That’s three possible soft landing spots for the currently free Payton. All three teams are close to being contenders and Payton could push them over the top.

Right now he appears to be playing chicken with the Saints, a game that he watched his quarterback, Drew Brees, win last spring.

Remember, Brees was unhappy with being tagged by the Saints as the franchise player and waited until he got the largest contract in league history to sign. But he always told us it wasn’t about the money.

Brees’ deal hurts the franchise a bit, tying up more than a few bucks in one man, but let’s face it, he did help save the franchise, not once but twice.

Leading the team to a Super Bowl title is one thing, leading it out of the darkness that is Bountygate is another. Payton has done his part, making the Saints watchable even after an 0-4 start that threatened to bring back the bag-over-head fans.

With little if any defense Brees has a chance to lead the Saints to an 8-8 record with a win over Carolina on Sunday. That’s a huge step in the right direction considering where this team started the year.

One has to wonder about the Saints and their future with or without Payton.

When the team was 0-4, he seemed like the only man to right the ship. He had done it before so why not let him do it again? And there was Payton, suspended for the season by the league that would later free him up from the contract he signed with New Orleans, telling the world he would never leave the Big Easy.

A match that appeared to still be made in heaven.

Only one thing: actions speak louder than words.

While currently talking to the Saints, Payton doesn’t appear close to signing. And the Saints, they may have found an option on their own sideline as well.

Joe Vitt has done a nice job since returning from his own six-game suspension for his part in the bounty mess, which he still vehemently denies. The Saints are 5-4 under Vitt with losses to Denver, San Francisco, Atlanta and the New York Giants.

Of that group, only the Giants have yet to qualify for the playoffs, but they still could, and they are the defending Super Bowl champs. The other three are serious contenders for this season’s crown.

Not bad for a club with no defense and little to play for but that chip on its shoulder. And Vitt has swallowed the Saints Kool-Aid, standing behind the franchise like the loyal soldier he appears to be.

Colonel Vitt may have earned his first general star by helping to turn this season around in New Orleans. If not with the Saints then maybe with somebody else.

So the Saints seem to have options as well.

This could be another standoff worth watching.

As if Saints fans didn’t need more drama.

•••

Jim Gazzolo is managing sports editor. Email him at jgazzolo@americanpress.com

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