METAIRIE, La. (AP) — The New Orleans Saints designated offensive line coach Aaron Kromer as the interim head coach for the first six regular-season games, when assistant head coach Joe Vitt will have to serve his suspension in connection with the NFL's bounty investigation.
Vitt has been overseeing head coaching duties since Sean Payton's full season suspension began in mid-April, but the Saints held off until Wednesday on a decision concerning who would become the figurehead of the coaching staff when Vitt had to step aside in Week 1.
The 45-year-old Kromer is in his fifth season with the Saints and also serves as running game coordinator.
"This was a difficult decision because we have several coaches on our staff that would do a great job in this role," general manager Mickey Loomis said. "Ultimately, I wanted to have the least amount of change with both the offensive and defensive staffs, and maintain the most continuity with the program that has been in place for the last six years."
The move allows offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. to maintain his focus exclusively on designing and calling plays for Drew Brees and the Saints' record-setting offense.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who was a head coach the past three seasons in St. Louis, was another option, but he is in his first season in New Orleans and trying to help the Saints adjust to his scheme.
"Aaron has been with us since 2008, he has coached with Sean both in college (at Miami, Ohio) and here at the Saints," Loomis said. "He is very familiar with our team and with the methods we have been successful with. He will do a great job."
Kromer, who interviewed for a head coaching job in St. Louis last offseason, said he appreciated the confidence the Saints are showing in him, but also noted he sees his role as having much more to do with ensuring continuity than putting his personal stamp on the way the team is run.
"Coach Payton has laid a successful foundation here and our jobs are to make sure we keep moving in that direction," Kromer said.
Kromer had been mentioned as an interim head coaching candidate ever since the suspensions both Payton and Vitt were announced in late March, a few weeks after the NFL announced it had uncovered a bounty system in which New Orleans defenders had been paid improper cash bonuses for injuring targeted opponents.
Neither Vitt nor current and former Saints players have admitted to participating in a bounty system as the NFL described it. They have said they ran only a pay-for-performance pool that offered a few hundred dollars — minimal sums relative to NFL contracts — for big plays such as interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles and big clean hits.
Payton, the first NFL head coach ever suspended, and Saints linebacker Jon Vilma, also suspended a full season, received the harshest punishments among those still with New Orleans. Loomis was suspended for the first half of the regular season and defensive end Will Smith was suspended four games.
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, now with St. Louis, has been suspended indefinitely.
The NFL Players Association has sued in federal court to have four punished players' suspensions overturned, and Vilma also has sued individually. None of the punished coaches, however, have challenged their sanctions beyond routine appeals to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, which were denied.
In the meantime, the Saints have sought to maintain the winning culture they have established in the Payton era and make the playoffs for a fourth-straight season.
The Saints have said throughout training camp that they believed they could weather their unprecedented bounty sanctions because most top assistant coaches and veteran leaders on the roster, such as Brees, have been in New Orleans for most of Payton's first six seasons, including the championship season of 2009-10.
"The thing we have here is a lot of quality assistant coaches," Kromer said earlier in training camp. "We'll still work as a family and as a group and get this thing done in a collective fashion the way Sean Payton trained us to do.
"We all have our own job to do as well. This is unprecedented. There is no right or wrong," Kromer said. "But really it's a fill-in job to run the program the way Sean would run it. ... Everyone on the staff agrees that that's the way it's going to happen."
Kromer played offensive line at Miami, Ohio, and also began his coaching career there in 1990. He has spent his last 11 seasons in the NFL as an assistant with Oakland (2001-04) under John Gurden and Bill Callahan, Tampa Bay (2005-07 under Gruden), and New Orleans (2008-present).
"We have great talent and depth on our coaching staff," Vitt said. "But most importantly we have guys on this coaching staff that clearly understand the foundation of success that Sean has built, and I feel great that Aaron and the rest of the staff will continue to build on that foundation."