Sean Payton is back as coach of the New Orleans Saints, his season-long suspension for his role in the club's bounty program lifted by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday, nearly two weeks earlier than expected.
Payton, along with assistant head coach Joe Vitt, general manager Mickey Loomis, and four players including Jonathan Vilma, was suspended after an investigation found the club had a performance pool offering cash rewards for key plays, including big hits. The player suspensions eventually were overturned.
"I clearly recognize that mistakes were made, which led to league violations," Payton said in a statement. "Furthermore, I have assured the commissioner a more diligent protocol will be followed."
The suspension was scheduled to end after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, but was moved up after Payton and Goodell met on Monday.
"Coach 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," Goodell said in a statement. "Sean fully complied with all the requirements imposed on him during his suspension.
"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."
Saints owner Tom Benson welcomed back his coach.
"We are all thankful that Sean Payton has been reinstated," Benson said. "We have a lot of work to do and we are in the middle of it right now."
There remains one outstanding issue for the Saints stemming from the bounty probe: What will become of the Saints' second draft pick next spring. As part of the bounty punishment, Goodell fined the Saints $500,000 and took away second-round picks in 2012 and 2013. However, Goodell left open the possibility of restoring the 2013 second-rounder and instead docking the team a later-round pick if he is satisfied with the club's level of cooperation in the bounty matter.
What the Saints do know is that the 49-year-old Payton is set to return to New Orleans for the next five seasons. Earlier this month he signed a contract extension running through the 2017 season.
The only coach in Saints history to win a Super Bowl is the last person punished in the bounty probe to return to work.
Without Payton on the sideline this season, the Saints missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.