- Associated Press - Thursday, March 22, 2012

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Sean Payton’s many motivational ploys included a life-size poster of an exit door on the locker room wall at Saints headquarters. It served as a not-so-subtle reminder that finding the way out of the organization was easy for those who failed to buy into his way.

It a stunning twist, the NFL has shown Payton the door.

The move has left the Saints reeling, trying to figure out how to move forward without Payton _ at least for a year.

New Orleans has begun picking up the pieces.

A person familiar with the situation said Thursday three current assistants are strong candidates to take over in Payton’s absence: Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.

The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team has not announced its plans.

The Saints also must orchestrate a front office and coaching staff shuffle to account for partial-season suspensions of general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games), who also coaches linebackers.

The person said it is too early to tell who will be named interim head coach or how reassignments across both the coaching staff and front office will shake out. The person added that Payton, who has now been with the club more than six years, and Loomis, who arrived 12 years ago, still had the backing of team owner Tom Benson.

Benson “continues to stand behind his guys,” the person said.

The Saints could appeal the punishment handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday, but it was not immediately clear whether the Saints intended to explore that option.

New Orleans also doesn’t know who they’ll have on defense. The NFL still has not decided how to punish players who participated in the bounty system. The Saints may have to be ready to replace several defensive regulars for a few games.

A more immediate priority is having a plan in place to fill the voids left by Payton’s suspension, which begins April 1, and the absence of Loomis. The GM will be able to oversee the draft and signings all the way through training camp, but will have to prepare his staff for his absence for the first half of the regular season.

As for Payton, his imprint and influence touched seemingly every aspect of the franchise.

The lone coach to lead the club to a Super Bowl championship has had a hand in everything from personnel decisions to the photos and slogans hanging in various meetings rooms and giant murals on the walls of the indoor practice field.

Payton has preached the importance of communication and coordination between not just the coaching staff, scouts and front office, but also the business and marketing sides of the franchise. Everyone in the building needed to be working toward the same goal.

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