MOBILE, Ala. — As he prepared to leave the hotel lobby Tuesday morning for the short drive to Senior Bowl practice, New Orleans Saints interim coach Joe Vitt received a cell phone call from an old, but familiar, number.
Vitt hadn’t seen the number in more than nine months, not since head coach Sean Payton began serving a season-long suspension last spring for his role in a pay-for-performance scheme that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Saints players participated in from 2009 to 2011.
“I got a phone call this morning, and I said to (General Manager) Mickey (Loomis) that something good was happening,” Vitt said after Payton was reinstated. “Of course, Sean hadn’t called me in the last year.”
Before Vitt could get his old friend on the phone, Loomis got a call from Saints owner Tom Benson, who informed him that Goodell reinstated Payton after a meeting Monday in New York City.
Payton was scheduled to be reinstated on Feb. 4, the day after Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. Goodell said last month he might let Payton come back early, which he did Tuesday morning.
Payton is expected to join Loomis, his coaching staff and other members of the team’s personnel department in Mobile on Wednesday as Senior Bowl workouts continue.
Payton missed the entire 2012 season for misleading league investigators looking into a bounty scheme that Goodell said targeted opposing players with the intent of knocking them out of games.
Goodell said the investigation showed players put money into and received cash rewards from a bounty pool administered by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
According to the statement, “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.”
“Sean fully complied with all the requirements imposed on him during his suspension,” Goodell said in the statement. “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.
“We are committed to delivering football that fans love and the safety players deserve. Coach Payton agrees, and I look forward to working with him going forward to do that.”
Payton, who signed a five-year contract extension earlier this month, began serving his suspension April 16 and missed the Saints’ 7-9 season.
Loomis and Vitt, the Saints’ assistant head coach/linebackers coach, were also suspended for eight and six games, respectively, for not putting an end to the performance pool and/or misleading investigators.
Vitt, who served as interim coach before and after his six-game suspension at the start of the season, has vigorously denied that a bounty program aimed at harming opponents existed and that money put into a pool was distributed for big defensive plays and hard, legal hits.
Williams, who was hired last January by the St. Louis Rams before the bounty scandal broke, was suspended indefinitely and remains banned from coaching in the NFL.
Four Saints — including linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith — were also suspended, although retired NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue last month vacated their penalties handed down by Goodell.
In a statement released by the Saints, Payton said he was thankful to Goodell for reinstating him and reiterated what he said last March: that he and Loomis were responsible for all aspects of the football operations.
“I clearly recognize that mistakes were made, which led to league violations,” Payton said. “Furthermore, I have assured the commissioner a more diligent protocol will be followed.
“Lastly, I feel we have learned from our mistakes and are ready to move forward. I want to thank our owner, Mr. Benson, and all of our great fans for the overwhelming support throughout this past year. I am excited to be back as head coach of the New Orleans Saints.”
After watching the first Senior Bowl practice Monday, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo talked about how he looked forward to getting Payton back soon.
What Spagnuolo didn’t know was how soon.
“Obviously, a year ago, when I was blessed enough to be offered this job, one of the mains reasons was because it was Sean Payton,” Spagnuolo said Tuesday. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have this whole year, but I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’m sure that I’m saying on everybody’s behalf that we’re pretty excited. It’s going to be really good.”
Defensive line coach Bill Johnson agreed.
“I think he’ll bring back a lot of the energy that we lost,” he said. “Plus, it’s right. Sean’s a difference-maker, and heck, why would you not want him back?”
Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said having Payton back is great news.
“It’s an awesome way to start the season in 2013,” Lofton said. “It’s going to be amazing to have him back. Now we don’t have anything to worry about.”
Loomis said Payton will hit the ground running.
“Obviously, we have been anticipating his reinstatement and return, so the fact that it’s early was great,” Loomis said. “We want to get back to business as usual. We want to put 2012 behind us and look forward to 2013. This will be the start.
“Sean is a great coach, a successful head coach, and a great offensive mind,” he said. “So we look forward to having him back.”