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NFL lifts suspension of Saints' Payton

NEW YORK (AP) - Sean Payton is back as coach of the New Orleans Saints.

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Payton's season-long suspension for his role in the Saints' bounty program was lifted by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday, nearly two weeks earlier than expected.

The decision allows Payton to attend the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Saturday, where some of the top college players available for the NFL draft will be competing.

Payton, along with assistant head coach Joe Vitt, general manager Mickey Loomis, and four players including Jonathan Vilma, was suspended after an investigation found the club had a performance pool offering cash rewards for key plays, including big hits. The player suspensions eventually were overturned.

``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.''

The suspension was scheduled to end after the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, but was moved up after Payton and Goodell met on Monday.

``Coach Payton acknowledged in the meeting his responsibility for the actions of his coaching staff and players and pledged to uphold the highest standards of the NFL and ensure that his staff and players do so as well,'' 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.''

Saints owner Tom Benson welcomed back his coach.

``We are all thankful that Sean Payton has been reinstated,'' Benson said. ``We have a lot of work to do and we are in the middle of it right now.''

Payton recently signed a five-year contract extension that runs through the 2017 season.

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