Originally posted on NESN.com  |  Last updated 11/4/12
Sean Payton's absence from the New Orleans sidelines has been noticeable this season. After a 2-5 start under the guidance of interim head coaches Aaron Kromer and more recently Joe Vitt, the Saints are yearning for the time when Payton can once again lead his players onto the field.  Now, that once assumed certainty is looking a lot less likely.Reports surfaced over the weekend about the validity of Payton's newly minted four-year contract extension, which was originally announced last season. It turns out that the NFL had voided the deal over the course of the past year, meaning Payton could become a free agent after this season.With so much of the Saints offensive system and overall success revolving around Payton's approach and style, if he chooses to walk after 2012 New Orleans could have major problems.Sitting out the entire 2012 season due to a suspension in connection with the Bountygate scandal that rocked the football world, Payton's presence in New Orleans hasn't been felt much this season. The shame brought upon the franchise has been troubling and Saints owner Tom Benson isn't pleased by all the negative attention. But while Payton's reputation is drudged by scandal, bounties and even alleged drug addiction, his value to the Saints organization is far more important.Since taking the head job in New Orleans in 2006, Payton has led the Saints to unprecedented success. He's guided the Saints to a 62-34 record with four playoff appearances and the franchise's first Super Bowl title during his six years leading the way.Drew Brees has also been a big piece of that puzzle, but Payton is also the one who brought the now Hall of Fame-worthy quarterback to the Big Easy in the first place. Many of the Saints star players, such as Darren Sproles, Lance Moore, Marques Colston and the list goes one, are a direct result of Payton's elite talent evaluation as well.Tony Romo's emergence as the signal caller in Dallas was also no coincidence, as it was Payton's scouting and belief in the underrated Romo that saw him take over as the Cowboys starting quarterback in 2006. But that relationship with Romo as well as team owner Jerry Jones, combined with Payton's three years as offensive coordinator in Big D, has speculation of a dream return running rampant. The move would be understandable given the newly tainted reputation of the Saints from the pay-for-pain scandal, but Payton has also become something of a living legend in New Orleans. His impact has been extraordinary and he has the opportunity to build a legacy as the greatest coach in the 40-plus year history of the organization.Vitt has been mentioned as a coaching candidate around the league even before taking the interim job this season. He has the knowledge and ability to be a terrific NFL coach, even if his first game wearing the head set was a blowout loss. But even with Vitt's skills, the Saints just won't be the same without Payton.Payton will have plenty of coaching opportunities elsewhere, if he decides to entertain offers in the offseason. But staying in New Orleans is likely his best bet, and the Saints only hope at returning to glory.Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

This article first appeared on NESN.com and was syndicated with permission.

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