The Saints are expecting Payton to return as coach when his suspension ends following the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 — perhaps earlier if Commissioner Roger Goodell permits it. Payton agreed in principle to a multiyear contract extension Friday, the team confirmed.
Meanwhile, Carolina coach Ron Rivera's future is unclear as he concludes a second straight losing season. A loss would doom him to consecutive 6-10 finishes, but Rivera said he believes the team is headed in the right direction.
"This week we're playing the Saints and then after that we'll just go forward and see what happens," Rivera said, referring to the talk about his job security. "It's crazy because you kind of wonder where it all came from and it never came from (Panthers owner Jerry Richardson) and that's the thing. I'm on the hot seat; at no point was I ever told that."
Certainly, his players haven't given up on him as they look to close out the season.
"Everybody feels like we're playing well, but it's kind of a bittersweet moment, because we feel like we should have been playing like this all year long," Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell said. "We know we have a good coach here. Hopefully he'll come back. We all want him back."
One of Carolina's few early-season wins came in Week 2 over a Saints squad en route to an 0-4 start. The Saints' defense was playing much worse back then, however. New Orleans' defense started so poorly, in fact, that despite substantial improvement it remains on pace to give up more yards than any in NFL history.
The Saints have yielded 6,512 yards, 281 yards short of the record 6,793 allowed by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, a team on which Vitt served as a third-year assistant.
Vitt concedes the numbers are not flattering, but also said they don't tell the story of how the unit responded to a poor start under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
"You talk to any defensive member of the team and they're proud to be a part of that unit. The coaching staff certainly is," Vitt said. "There has been improvement, there has been (a) shutout. Instead of being the negative part, the all-time leader, whatever that means, we have a chance to be 8-8 and be an improved defense. That's more important — not where we were, but how we finished."
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