Payton was beat down with a year-long suspension back in March for his role in the bounty scandal that rocked the Saints’ season. The four players involved—Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove—were all absolved of their suspensions Tuesday by Paul Tagliabue, but the coaching staff was not.
Interim head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis have already served their suspensions. Payton’s isn’t scheduled to elapse until Feb. 3, 2013, the day of Super Bowl XLVII.
In communications between Goodell and Payton about reinstatement, apparently the topic of an early release was tossed around. Goodell told Ed Werder of ESPN, "I don't want to say he could be because, again, we are in the early stages. We are starting to talk about it."
A source close to Payton told ESPN that Payton asked for his suspension to conclude after the regular season, not the Super Bowl.
Since the Saints are likely out of the playoffs, Goodell agreeing to an early release would give Payton an extra 34 days with his team. This extra time would, obviously, have no bearing on the 2012 season, but it would pay huge dividends toward New Orleans’ preparation for the 2013 campaign.
Where the move really pays off is in public relations for Goodell. After taking so much heat all year for the severe punishment of the Saints' personnel, Goodell needs a PR win. He needs it especially quick now that Tagliabue reversed his suspensions on Tuesday.
Goodell now has the public image of a dictator, hell-bent on preserving the image of the league at all costs. It doesn’t matter who gets punished or who gets in the way, it’s Goodell’s way or else, and his sloppy and impetuous handling of the bounty allegations forced this course of action.
Don’t think for one second that Goodell would consider this if the Saints were playoff bound, however. Early reinstatement is only on the table because the Saints’ season is far beyond repair.
Needing a quick boost of positive mojo, though, watch Goodell pull the reinstatement card and grant Payton’s return for after the regular season. But it won’t likely come until New Orleans is mathematically eliminated from the postseason.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.