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Within the past year, the multiyear contract extension the Saints announced for Sean Payton in September 2011 was voided by the NFL, making the suspended head coach a free agent after this season and casting questions on how long he will remain in New Orleans, according to league sources.

Payton is expected to become the NFL's most sought-after head coach after this season and there already is speculation in league circles that he could wind up returning to Dallas, where he worked as the assistant head coach from 2003 to 2005, during which time the Cowboys brought in quarterback Tony Romo, who attended the same college, Eastern Illinois, as Payton.

Just as Payton's role in the bounty scandal has been an ongoing saga with the NFL for the past year, so has his contract.

As recently as March, when Payton was visiting NFL offices to appeal his yearlong suspension in the bounty scandal, he asked NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the status of his contract extension and was told it was unsatisfactory as it initially was constituted, sources said.

At issue in the contract was one specific clause that would have enabled Payton to walk away from the deal if general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended, fired or left the New Orleans organization, sources said.

The league believed that any such language in Payton's contract would set a bad precedent for other coaching contracts and rejected the deal well before Loomis was suspended for the first eight games this season for his part in the bounty scandal.

Dating back to roughly the start of this year, the two sides engaged in numerous subsequent conversations to try to resolve the issue but never did.

In the interim, the league has granted Payton permission to work for Saints owner Tom Benson's NBA New Orleans team, and the suspended head coach has been doing some spot work there to earn income.

Some in the league office believe Payton's contract could toll -- meaning the last year would be put on hold, tying him to New Orleans for the 2013 season -- but there is no evidence to confirm that possibility. Until now, the league has not been asked to review or rule on the contract, according to sources, though some believe it eventually could.

To others, there is no issue. Payton will be a free agent. Some believe Payton's strong relationship with Benson will be enough to keep him in New Orleans long term.

But others are more skeptical, knowing that the suspended head coach has undergone some personal changes in his life that have included going through a divorce and spending plenty of time in Dallas.

When Benson initially announced last year the extension for Payton that never got league approval, he said: "I am very pleased to announce this contract extension today for Sean that will run through the 2015 season. Our goal is to continue to build a tradition of winning here in New Orleans and Sean represents that tradition."
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