Mickles: Bounty scandal almost over

Associated Press photo by DAVE MARTINSuspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton holds his hand to his heart for the National Anthem on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Show caption
Associated Press photo by DAVE MARTINSuspended New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton holds his hand to his heart for the National Anthem on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Can it really be that we’re nearing the end of the New Orleans Saints’ alleged bounty scheme that came to the NFL forefront in early March?

After months of allegations, suspensions, appeals, legal proceedings and a bunch of he-said, he-said testimony, things may be almost back to normal for the Saints as early as a month from now.

That’s if suspended coach Sean Payton, who has been away from the team and in NFL exile for eight months, is reinstated and allowed to return to his office during the playoffs instead of having to wait until the day after Super Bowl XLVII.

Word of that possibly happening came just one day after former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated the suspensions handed down by Commissioner Roger Goodell to linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith — allowing them to remain on the field for the final three games of a miserable season.

That, coupled with an earlier-than-expected return by Payton, is good news for Saints fans although it won’t do much to help them as they finish off a season with nothing to play for other than an 8-8 record.

But just like Vilma and Smith and former teammates Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove considered Tuesday’s decision by Tagliabue to be a win, having Payton back — even if it’s only a couple of weeks early — could be a win for the Saints if Goodell allows him to return.

While a couple of weeks don’t seem like much considering what has transpired in the past 91/2 months, Payton has an awful lot of work to do.

You have to know that after an unwanted eight-month vacation, the soon-to-be 49-year-old Payton is energized and itching to get back in the saddle after watching his team get off to an 0-4 start and lose its last three games to tumble out of the playoff race.

Even though they went 5-1 between those two losing streaks, the offense has been too inconsistent and turnover-prone and a defense that has held just three of 13 opponents to fewer than 400 yards ranks last in the NFL in total yards and rushing yards allowed.

If you don’t think Payton isn’t already thinking that he can walk in and turn things around and get the train back on track, you’re terribly wrong.

Only one penalty from the bounty episode will remain at that point — the forfeiture of their second-round pick in the April draft.

Naturally, Payton won’t be able do anything to change this woebegone season, but interim coach Joe Vitt knows what it would mean to have him back.

“It’s huge. ... Sean’s the head coach of this football team,” he said. “Every player, coach and member of this organization misses him.

“The spark that he’s going to give us and leadership he’s going to give us … we’re talking about a man that’s already won a Super Bowl, and he’s got Hall of Fame credentials. His body of work and credentials speak for itself.”