Loomis returns to Saints in unsettled times

METAIRIE (AP) — Now that New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis has returned to work, the Saints need his crisis-management

skills to be sharp.

The organization continues to be rife with unsettled issues, some of which have made its fan base uneasy.

So there was no time for Loomis to ease back into a routine Tuesday after serving his eight-game suspension in connection

with the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints.

His immediate tasks include clearing up the status of Sean Payton's contract extension through 2015, which NFL Commissioner

Roger Goodell has so far refused to approve since the coach signed it in 2011.

Recent revelations that Payton is still not

officially under contract beyond this season have only pushed

anxiety-ridden Saints

fans closer to panic. New Orleans has struggled while Payton has

served his season-long bounty suspension, which, in the minds

of many, has only strengthened the fiery and innovative coach's

value.

Loomis also will have to oversee contingency plans in the event that defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Jonathan Vilma

have to serve their own bounty suspensions, which so far have been delayed by legal moves.

The GM kept a low profile on his first day back.

The Saints did not make him available to reporters and he did not immediately respond to requests for comments about his return

to his Saints duties.

Assistant head coach Joe Vitt said even he

did not have much time to chat with Loomis when they met Tuesday

morning, but Vitt

stressed that people throughout the organization were comforted by

knowledge that the GM was back for the last half of what

has already been an extraordinarily eventful season.

"Listen, Mickey and Sean are the leaders of

this building. It's not only great for Mickey to be back for our players

and our

coaching staff, but every person in our building," Vitt said.

"Slowly but surely we're starting to get people back. Everybody

knows here what Mickey means to me, but he also means just as much

to everybody else in our building and our football team."

Vitt also sounded skeptical of the idea that Payton would leave.

"Our football team loves Sean Payton. Sean Payton loves this football team," Vitt said. "Sean Payton loves this city. And

this city loves Sean Payton. That goes a long way. That's what I know."

At 3-5, the Saints are playoff longshots as they head into next Sunday's showdown in the Superdome with undefeated NFC South

Division leaders Atlanta (8-0). Yet a sense of hope permeated team headquarters after a 28-13 victory over Philadelphia on

Monday night that marked New Orleans' third victory in four games.

"I love this football team. I love the resolve. I love the togetherness. I love their work habits," Vitt said. "All that being

said, we've got to get better this week."

If the Saints are to get better, such strides will have to be made in an environment of uncertainty.

Two people familiar with Payton's contract

situation told The Associated Press that the Saints and Payton still see

nothing

wrong with a provision in the coach's extension that would allow

Payton to opt out of his contract if Loomis — who hired Payton

in 2006 — were to leave the club. The people, who spoke on

condition of anonymity because the NFL and Saints have declined

public comment on the matter, say the Saints and Payton believe

the provision is similar to one that allowed Bill Parcells

to leave his post as executive vice president with Miami if

ownership changed.

Goodell has not publicly specified his problem with Payton's extension, which pays more than $6 million a year. The NFL has

said the commissioner has not made a final determination about Payton's contract status for next season. Goodell has said,

however, that he has discussed his concerns with the Saints and asked the club to rework part of the deal.

Although Payton is suspended, he and the Saints currently may address Goodell's concerns with the extension, providing some

hope of resolving the matter before the coach effectively becomes a free agent.

Another major area of uncertainty involves ongoing challenges to players' bounty suspensions.

Although Goodell has recused himself as

arbitrator for four current or former Saints players' appeals of their

bounty suspensions,

the players — Smith, Vilma, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and

free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove — objected

to Goodell's decision to appoint former commissioner Paul

Tagliabue to handle the matter. The players say Tagliabue has a

conflict because he works for the law firm that has represented

the NFL in bounty-related matters. Tagliabue has given no

indication he intends to step down, leaving the matter for a

federal judge in New Orleans to decide.

In the meantime, Smith and Vilma keep playing, and Saints coaches make weekly game plans on the assumption they'll have the

two defenders in the lineup.

"You have to have a little bit of foresight

should something happen. We've kind of just been under that thing all

year long,"

defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "Once we know the week

is set the way the week is, we just move on and worry about

the opponent we're playing."

The Saints won't want to lose Smith and

Vilma, given their leadership roles on a unit that needs help. The

Saints are last

in the NFL in yards allowed (471.3 per game) but did come through

with clutch plays against the Eagles, including Patrick

Robinson's interception return for a touchdown, a fumble recovery

and seven sacks. Smith had two sacks and Vilma had two tackles

for losses.

If the suspensions are upheld, Smith will have to serve four games and Vilma the rest of the season.

Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said he hopes that won't happen, but added that the Saints know worrying about it won't do

any good.

"We're at the point now where it seems like

every week there's something new to distract us, so people are like,

'The hell

with it. We'll wait to figure it out when the time comes,'" Shanle

said. "We're trying to fight our way back into something

and with all the distractions we've had week in and week out, I

think guys just kind of put blinders on."