Sources: Saints, Payton agree to terms on deal

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans Saints and suspended coach Sean Payton will indeed be together again next season as the

bounty scandal fades into history and the bid to win a second Super Bowl resumes.

Payton has agreed in principle to a multiyear contract extension, the team said.

"Very happy it is official," quarterback Drew Brees said in an email to the AP. "Never had any doubts."

Payton was due to begin his seventh season as the Saints' head coach in 2012 before being suspended for the whole season by

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation.

"I am pleased that Sean Payton will be our head coach for a long time," owner Tom Benson said in a statement. "Now we can

focus our attention on building on the winning tradition with the Saints that Sean has played such a large role in."

Payton signed an extension in 2011 worth

more than $6 million a year that would have kept him in New Orleans

through 2015,

but Goodell objected to certain language in that deal, leaving

Payton's future uncertain until the deal was reached Friday.

The language in question in the previous extension gave Payton the

right to opt out early if general manager Mickey Loomis

left the club for any reason.

The new agreement also must be approved by the NFL. The team did not disclose the length of the extension or financial terms.

Payton is the only coach in Saints history to win a Super Bowl, a title earned at the end of the 2009 season. 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 former defensive coordinator Gregg 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. The commissioner also suspended Loomis for half of the

season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games.

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 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.

Although speculation ran rampant that Payton

could essentially become a free agent after this season and end up

elsewhere,

Brees repeatedly said he would be "shocked" if Payton ended up

anywhere but New Orleans next season. Brees is under contract

with the Saints through the 2016 season, and Payton was the

driving force in the Saints' effort to acquire Brees as a free

agent in 2006.

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.

The Saints headed into Sunday's season finale against Carolina at 7-8, hoping to avoid their first losing season since they

went 7-9 in 2007.

Payton is expected to return to the Saints immediately after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, unless Goodell allows him to return

earlier.

When Payton reports back to work, it will

officially close the book on the bounty saga that has overshadowed the

Saints' organization

since the NFL first announced on March 2 that it found the Saints

ran a program that paid improper cash bonuses for hits that

injured opponents.

In addition to the suspensions of Payton,

Loomis and Vitt, the Saints also were docked second-round draft choices

in 2012

and 2013, though Goodell has said he could potentially restores

the Saints' 2013 second-round choice and dock the team a later-round

pick.

Meanwhile, four current or former Saints

were initially given suspensions of varying lengths. Two current Saints

defensive

captains, linebacker Jon Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, were

among those suspended. Vilma was banned for the whole season

and Smith for four games, but the players successfully challenged

their punishment with the help of the NFL Players Association

and never served a game.

Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was

appointed by Goodell to oversee the players' appeals, ruled that the NFL

probe

was accurate in its findings that the Saints ran an improper

program and attempted to cover it up, but that the evidence was

not strong enough to warrant unprecedented suspensions for players

who had been only fined for similar behavior in the past.