The NFL reinstated New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton on Tuesday from his season-long suspension as a result of the league's investigation into the team's bounty program.
The league said the decision to reinstate Payton was made after a meeting between the coach and commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday in New Orleans.
"We had a very productive discussion," 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. We are committed to delivering football that fans love and the safety players deserve. Coach Payton agrees and I look forward to working with him going forward to do that."
The NFL said Payton is allowed to attend Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala., this week and resume his duties with the team.
"I am thankful today Commissioner Goodell has granted me reinstatement. As I stated back in March, I, along with Mickey Loomis, take full responsibility for all aspects of our football program. 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. Lastly, I feel we have learned from our mistakes and are ready to move forward. I want to thank our owner, Mr. [Tom] Benson, and all of our great fans for the overwhelming support throughout this past year. I am excited to be back as Head Coach of the New Orleans Saints!"
Earlier this month, The Saints signed Payton to a five-year contract extension that runs through the 2017 season.
The deal is expected to pay Payton more than $8 million annually, which should establish him as the NFL's highest paid coach, a league source told ESPN.
"We are all thankful that Sean Payton has been reinstated. We have a lot of work to do and we are in the middle of it right now," Benson said in a statement. "He is our head coach and we welcome him back. We look forward to a great 2013 season and making another run at a World Championship for our fans!"
Payton is the only coach in Saints history to win a Super Bowl. But his legacy was tarnished by the NFL's bounty probe, as Goodell ruled that Payton failed to exert proper institutional control over a cash-for-hits bounty program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009 to 2011.
Williams was suspended indefinitely for his role in the bounty program. Williams has not been reinstated by the NFL and his status will not be addressed until another team is interested in hiring him, sources told ESPN. It was reported in early January that Williams would not return to the Rams, where he had been hired prior to his suspension.
The commissioner also suspended Loomis for half the season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games.
Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who heard the appeals of the suspended players, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Tuesday that he still supports Goodell.
"It had become more than just a distraction," Tagliabue told the Times-Picayune. "The controversy was overshadowing everything Roger had accomplished in terms of emphasizing player safety. From my perspective, Roger found himself in an impossible spot. It became impossible for him in any sensible way to bring it to an end. Everyone would be better off to bring it to an end."
Loomis and Vitt are in Mobile evaluating players. Loomis said he was caught off guard by the news of Payton's return. But he said having Payton back sooner than expected will help the Saints.
"Every day makes a difference. We've certainly missed Sean in terms of the football team and all the things that go with our business and the game. But look, I miss his friendship. We all miss his friendship. We miss him as a person. I'm excited that he's going to be back here and fired up that he's back."
Vitt said he talked to Payton on Tuesday morning and that he should join the Saints' contingent in Alabama on Wednesday.
"We just found out on the way to practice," Vitt said. "Mr. B called Mickey and we're all excited. Sean went and spent the day in New York (Monday). He just got back in Dallas. I talked to him on the phone about 5 o'clock this morning. He's packing his bags, so we'll expect he'll be here some time" Wednesday.
Vitt agreed with Loomis that the timing of Payton's return is good for the team.
Payton is "going to hit the ground running with both feet. His jaw is going to be set. He'll have a note pad full of thoughts and ideas and he's going to have to get himself caught up with the evaluation process of our team and looking at film, which he'll do. This is perfect, getting him back now, because he's going to be here for the readings of our players. He's going to be here for the readings of these college seniors. We start handing out unrestricted free agent tape on Thursday and Friday of this week.
"This is where you're building the foundation of your football team, with the evaluation process of these draft-eligible juniors and seniors and the free agents that are out there."
Payton is 62-34 in regular-season games as Saints coach and 5-3 in the postseason. During the three seasons before his suspension, the Saints won 41 regular-season and playoff games combined, more than any other team in the NFL.
Without Payton on the sideline this season, the Saints missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
There remains one outstanding issue for the Saints stemming from the bounty probe: What will become of the Saints' second 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.
Payton's reinstatement is one more step for the Saints to return to normalcy, but for Vitt, it doesn't bring closure to the bounty scandal.
"It doesn't for me. You're going to have to ask Sean that question, Mickey that question, Vilma that question. It certainly doesn't for me. I can forgive. I'm not going to forget. It is what it is."
Information from ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder and The Associated Press was used in this report.