NFL lifts suspension of Saints coach Payton

NEW YORK (AP) — Sean Payton is back as coach of the New Orleans Saints.

Payton's season-long suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty program was lifted by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on

Tuesday, nearly two weeks earlier than expected.

The decision allows Payton to attend the

Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Saturday, where some of the top college

players available

for the NFL draft will be competing.

Payton, along with assistant head coach Joe Vitt, general manager Mickey Loomis, and four players including Jonathan Vilma,

was suspended after an investigation found the club had a performance pool offering cash rewards for key plays, including

big hits. The player suspensions eventually were overturned.

"I clearly recognize that mistakes were made, which led to league violations," Payton said in a statement. "Furthermore, I

have assured the commissioner a more diligent protocol will be followed."

The suspension was scheduled to end after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, but was moved up after Payton and Goodell met on Monday.

"Coach Payton acknowledged in the meeting

his responsibility for the actions of his coaching staff and players and

pledged

to uphold the highest standards of the NFL and ensure that his

staff and players do so as well," Goodell said in a statement.

"'Sean fully complied with all the requirements imposed on him

during his suspension.

"More important, it is clear that Sean understands and accepts his responsibilities as a head coach and the vital role that

coaches play in promoting player safety and setting an example for how the game should be played at all levels."

Saints owner Tom Benson welcomed back his coach.

"We are all thankful that Sean Payton has been reinstated," Benson said. "We have a lot of work to do and we are in the middle

of it right now."

There remains one outstanding issue for the

Saints stemming from the bounty probe: What will become of the Saints'

second

pick next spring. As part of the bounty punishment, Goodell fined

the Saints $500,000 and took away second-round picks in

2012 and 2013. However, Goodell left open the possibility of

restoring the 2013 second-rounder and instead docking the team

a later-round pick if he is satisfied with the club's level of

cooperation in the bounty matter.

What the Saints do know is that the 49-year-old Payton is set to return to New Orleans for the next five seasons. Earlier

this month he signed a contract extension running through the 2017 season.

The coach is the last person punished in the bounty probe to return to work. Before Tuesday, Payton had not been at work since

mid-April, when Goodell rejected the coach's appeal of his suspension.

Loomis was suspended for eight games, Vitt

for six and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams remains

suspended indefinitely

Vilma and current Saints defensive lineman

Will Smith, along with former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove,

were given

suspensions of various lengths, but never served a game. Their

punishments were overturned after lengthy appeals which also

coincided with exhaustive litigation in federal court.

The litigation included Vilma's defamation lawsuit against Goodell, which was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan

last week.

Payton has guided the most successful period in the franchise's history, leading the Saints to three NFC South division titles

and four postseason appearances. Two of his teams advanced to the NFC Championship and the 2009 squad won Super Bowl XLIV.

He is the only coach in Saints history to

win a Super Bowl. But his legacy was tarnished by the NFL's bounty

probe, as Goodell

ruled that Payton failed to exert proper institutional control

over a cash-for-hits bounty program run by Williams from 2009-2011.

Although the Saints objected to the characterization of what coaches and players have said was nothing more than a performance

pool for big plays, Goodell suspended Payton for the entire season.

Payton is 62-34 in regular-season games as

Saints coach and 5-3 in the postseason. During the three seasons before

his suspension,

the Saints won 41 regular-season and playoff games combined, more

than any other team in the NFL.

Payton has primarily handled the offense in

New Orleans, teaming up with quarterback Drew Brees to break numerous

NFL and

club records. The single-season NFL records set by the Saints in

2011 included yards passing by a team (5,505) and a quarterback

(5,476). The Saints also set a record for total offensive yards

with 7,474.

Without Payton on the sideline this season,

the Saints missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Brees

remained prolific,

but his 18 interceptions also tied for a league high heading into

the final weekend of the season.