Sean Payton now knows for certain he won't be coaching in 2012.
And the New Orleans Saints must figure out whether Bill Parcells or someone else is best suited to take over a team seeking its fourth straight trip to the playoffs.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday rejected the Saints' appeals of their unprecedented punishment stemming from the league's investigation of the club's bounty system. The program offered cash bonuses for big hits that knocked targeted opponents out of games or hurt them enough that they required help getting to the sideline.
In addition to upholding Payton's suspension, which begins next Monday and runs through the Super Bowl — in New Orleans next season — Goodell also upheld suspensions of eight games for general manager Mickey Loomis and six games for assistant head coach Joe Vitt, along with a $500,000 fine for the franchise and the loss of second-round draft picks this year and next.
Vitt and Loomis begin their suspensions after the preseason ends.
The Saints case represents perhaps the starkest example yet of the sea change that the NFL has undergone since medical research and media reports on the long-term damage suffered by football players through concussions began to gain attention a few years ago.
While former players say off-the-books incentives have been around for years, and current players say the tough talk about getting after specific opponents happens in locker rooms throughout the NFL, Goodell responded to the Saints case by handing out stern penalties.
Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who left the Saints after last season to join the St. Louis Rams, ran the bounty program and has been suspended indefinitely. He did not appeal.
Goodell said in a statement if Payton, Loomis and Vitt "embrace the opportunity and participate in a constructive way," he would consider reducing the financial penalties on them. While none of them has been fined, each will lose significant amounts while not being paid their salaries during the suspensions.
Goodell also "would consider whether there are factors that would support modifying the forfeiture of the team's 2013 second-round draft choice."
The commissioner's latest decision could open the way for the Saints to coax Parcells — Payton's mentor since their days together in Dallas — out of retirement.
Parcells, a Hall of Fame finalist who turns 71 in August, has said he would consider coaching the Saints if asked to help his former protege. Payton and Loomis played golf with the former NFL coach during NFL meetings in south Florida last month to talk to him about the team's predicament.
Payton's suspension was supposed to begin April 1, but he was allowed to continue working while his appeal was pending, delaying plans to select an interim coach.
If the Saints decide to hire an interim coach from outside the organization, as would be the case with Parcells, the club also would have to interview a minority candidate to comply with the NFL's "Rooney Rule."
Parcells, who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and took the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl, has not coached since retiring from the Cowboys after the 2006 season, though he then worked in Miami's front office.
The Saints also could decide to promote from within the current staff.
There are three strong candidates among Saints assistants to take over as interim coach: offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. Payton expressed confidence in the abilities of his assistants to compensate for his absence, but also has voiced some misgivings about saddling those coaches with additional responsibilities.
Vitt also could be a candidate to step in, as he did briefly last season when Payton broke his leg, once his suspension ends.
Loomis will be able to oversee the draft and handle other roster moves. When the preseason concludes, he will serve his suspension for failing to put a stop to the bounty system in a timely way.
With all the uncertainty, Payton had been working long hours at the Saints' suburban New Orleans headquarters trying to cram as much planning for 2012 into whatever time he had left.
Payton has said he laid out plans for the offseason training program and the beginning of training camp, up until the Saints play Arizona in the Hall of Fame game Aug. 5 in Canton, Ohio.
The NFL has said Williams' bounty system, which ran from 2009 through 2011, offered cash payments of $1,500 for "knockouts," in which an opposing player was knocked out of a game, or $1,000 for "cart-offs," in which an opponent needed help off the field. The league has said the bounty pool grew as large as $50,000, reaching its height in the 2009 season, when New Orleans won its only Super Bowl.
The investigation also found that Payton initially lied to league investigators about the existence of a bounty program and instructed his defensive assistants to do the same. It also found that Loomis did not do enough to put a stop to the enterprise after he was informed the league was looking into it in early 2010.
Payton twice apologized for his role in the bounty program, saying he takes "full responsibility" for allowing it to flourish.
The NFL has said as many as 27 players also could be sanctioned in the scandal, but it is not yet clear when that might happen, creating additional uncertainty for New Orleans and some teams that have signed former Saints defensive regulars as they tried to build their 2012 rosters.