Barring an appeal, coach Sean Payton will walk out of the Saints facility sometime Saturday and begin an 11-month suspension for his complicity in a bounty system that existed for three years in New Orleans under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Payton, who will not be allowed to return as New Orleans' coach until after Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3, will have prepared his team -- and his interim successor -- as best as he possibly can for the 2012 season. There will be a wish list of positions to address in the draft. There will be schedules for minicamp, OTAs and training camp. Heck, he might even leave a script with the first 15 offensive plays for the season opener.
But the most important thing he can do to help his coaches and players isn't tangible like a to-do list.
"He's got to leave them with the feeling that he trusts them and he knows that they can do what they've always done extremely well -- and they can do it without him there," said former NFL coach Dick Vermeil. "And he will expect them to do it without him there."
Payton's exit is as untimely as it is unprecedented. NFL teams are entering the most critical period of their offseasons. Free agency is continuing, offseason programs are about to commence, the draft will be held April 26-28, and training camps already are being mapped out. As if all that weren't enough, teams also are tweaking, if not revising, their offense, defense and special teams.
This is the time of year when a team begins to get better or starts to get worse. In the NFL, nothing stays the same.
And now the Saints are losing the man who turned them around.
New Orleans had won just one playoff game in 39 seasons before Payton arrived in 2006. Since then, the Saints have won three NFC South titles, gone 5-3 in the postseason and won a Super Bowl.
Can the Saints continue to win during Payton's absence or could they plummet into a tailspin from which it will take them years to recover? Vermeil believes they'll remain competitive.
"I think they can," he said. "First off, they haven't played a game yet so they haven't lost one. Who's to say they might not win the first five in a row? I would go on the positive side. Players win games, and if they don't lose too many players in this thing, and the draft is good, and free agency is good, and the schedule is conducive to winning early especially, I really think they can do it.
"Nobody's done it any better than Sean Payton from an offensive standpoint. Here he takes an organization that couldn't buy a playoff game to a Super Bowl win. You aren't going to replace him with somebody; there aren't that many guys around. That's why they pay them a lot of money. But because of what he's built there -- the foundation is there -- they can maintain without him for a short period of time."
But the Saints will need the right man to guide them in the interim. Payton has talked to former NFL coach Bill Parcells, his friend and mentor, about taking the Saints' reins for one season. Vermeil would put his stamp of approval on that move.
"I think someone has to be designated as a leader, and if you're going to designate someone as a leader it would probably be a big advantage to have someone who's been there and done that. Who can do it better than Bill Parcells? Nobody.
"A person of that caliber, who has coached in the league, would know what he had to do to make it work. He isn't going to have to experience some negatives and correct some things he's doing wrong to get it right. He's already done all that stuff."
The alternative plan, should Parcells decline an invitation to fill in for Payton, would be to select an interim coach from his current staff. The three most likely candidates are defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., and offensive line coach/running game coach Aaron Kromer.
Among that group, Spagnuolo would be the most logical choice, even though he joined the Saints just recently. Spags is the only one of the three with head coaching experience, having guided the Rams from 2009 through 2011.
"Steve Spagnuolo has got experience as a head coach in a very tough situation, and he's done some real good things," Vermeil said. "I know Steve Spagnuolo is a leader. I've watched him work, I've watched him coach. I've been with him at [the Rams'] squad meetings. Carmichael has been doing a great job along with the head coach with that offense, and sooner or later someone is going to give him a head coaching job.
"Is it like bringing in a figure like Bill Parcells? Neither one of them has Hall of Fame credentials. Bill Parcells does. So there's an automatic establishment of credibility the minute he walks through the door. He doesn't have to prove anything to anybody. I kind of doubt that he would do it, but maybe he will."
Vermeil emphasized that the interim coach has to lead. He must step up and take command. He must establish a chain of command and give the players the best opportunity to win.
"Some people will say, 'Gosh, how in this short period of time are you going to be able to build much of a relationship as a leader?' " Vermeil said. "Well, we've fought a lot of wars where we put kids in military camp for six weeks and sent them overseas. ... I think the key thing is that the person who goes in there doesn't try to be Sean Payton, [but] just tries to be himself. And if he's somebody off that staff, maintain to the best of his ability what Sean has already built there. Don't let it disintegrate from the inside."
In the end, Vermeil believes Payton can become a better coach in absentia because he will see things from a different -- perhaps even unique -- perspective. Things that might have slipped past him before. Vermeil experienced such an awakening when he left the Eagles after the 1982 season and went into broadcasting.
"I'm on the field watching Don Shula run practices. I'm on the field watching Tom Landry running practices. You're studying the game without the emotion and without the tension of the preparation. You're just a student. You just see things and say, 'Oh, why didn't I see that sooner?' You can be so blind and so consumed ..."
An NFL head coach for 15 seasons with the Eagles, Rams and Chiefs who led the Rams to victory in Super Bowl 34, Vermeil addressed other topics relating to Payton and the Saints during a 20-minute interview with SI.com.
On where the Saints will miss Payton most: "I would say running the offense on game day. I could be wrong; it could be his overall leadership command. Not knowing him as well as I know other coaches, but having watched him, I would say running the offense on game day. Putting the game plan together, putting the attack together, his communication with his quarterback, and then getting it done on Sunday. Because he's a brazen play caller."
On whether the Saints will be adversely affected in free agency in the future because of the scandal: "No, I don't think so. I just think coaches and players ... we're all tolerant, we're all understanding of the pressures, we're all understanding of how certain things can grow and get a little bigger than they should have got. I can remember broadcasting an Eagles-Redskins playoff game in the '80s that was called 'The Body Bag.' It never grew to what this grew to because it was different times. People thought it was funny at that time. It's not funny anymore."
On what Payton should do to keep his coaching skills sharp: "First off, I would prepare for every game as if I were coaching. He was really the offensive coordinator, OK? I'd be working as an offensive coordinator with no game to prepare for [but] just keep learning more. And just keep the laboratory open. Keep it building. So when he steps back in, he'll revise a lot of things he was doing and he will have found some better things to do -- without the pressure of game preparation, without a time limit."
On whether Payton should appeal his suspension: "Well, you know that's the American way. I think everybody has a right to do that. Why should a football coach be treated any differently than the guy who runs Bank of America?"
On what his message to Payton would be if he could talk to him: "I'd say, 'Sean, sometimes you learn a hell of a lot more about doing the right thing after making a mistake than you would have if you had never made the mistake.' He can come out bigger and better, a stronger person. He's always shown class. If handled properly, he can come out a stronger person and a better coach.
"He is a good person. He just made a mistake."