The Saints compounded an already serious violation of league rules by trying to ignore it, or worse, cover it up. They turned a violation into a scandal.
Bounties have been a part of professional football almost since its inception. Locker room “pay-for-performance” pools exist throughout the league and players I spoke with Friday confirmed it.
Did the Saints’ system go too far? Undoubtedly. But to think the Saints and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams are rogue vigilantes in this scheme is naïve.
The Saints, though, were the ones who were caught and now they will pay a steep price for their actions.
Their timing couldn’t have been worse. The scandal occurred at the height of the league’s crusade to improve player safety. Commissioner Roger Goodell will not treat lightly alleged attempts by the Saints to deliberately injure star players like quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. This violates two of the league’s most cherished covenants: player safety and competitive integrity.
For this, expect the NFL to make an example out of the Saints. Goodell will hammer the Saints as hard as Bobby McCray hit Kurt Warner in the 2009 NFC playoffs.
The sanctions are expected to be precedent-setting. When the league starts throwing around terms like “integrity of the game” and “institutional control” it is serious.
Penance could include the loss of draft picks and fines for the organization along with fines and suspensions for the guilty players, coaches and executives.
Many believe the punishment will be worse than what the Patriots received for the Spygate scandal. In 2007, New England Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 and the franchise was fined $250,000 and docked a first-round draft choice for videotaping opponents’ signals during games in violation of league rules.
Williams, who is now with the St. Louis Rams, is likely facing a steep fine and multi-game suspension.
Goodell is expected to rule on the matter later this month.
Until then, questions abound about how this will impact the Saints in the near and distant future:
Will the loss of a draft pick or picks involve this year and/or next? The Saints do not have a first-round draft pick this season. Their earliest pick in the draft is in the second round, the No. 59 overall.
How will the possible suspension of General Manager Mickey Loomis and/or Coach Sean Payton affect the club’s ability to sign quarterback Drew Brees to a long-term contract should negotiations extend past free agency?
And if players are suspended, how many will be punished and for how long? The entire Saints defense has been implicated so the team’s ability to compete could be dramatically affected.
It seems certain the club’s ability to defend its NFC South division title and challenge for the conference title will be negatively impacted in some way.
Make no mistake, this is a black eye for the organization. Their lone Super Bowl title is forever tarnished, their squeaky-clean image irreparable harmed.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints had become America’s Team. Everyone universally loved the story of their post-storm chumps-to-champs makeover. So much for that.
The Saints will now rank alongside the Spygate Patriots and cocky Cowboys among the most despised teams in the NFL. This story will follow the Saints for years. It’s not going to go away after the league hands down its punishment.
It also will tarnish the legacy of owner Tom Benson, who appeared to do everything right in this case yet was failed by the men he entrusted to lead his organization. Loomis and Payton were derelict in their duties.
This wasn’t a one-time indiscretion. This was organized, institutionalized system of improper behavior and actions that took place over an extended period and condoned by team leaders.
Another club might be spared the wrath of Goodell’s rod. The Saints, though, should not count on such leniency. Their pattern of behavior has made them few allies over the years in the NFL office.
They’ve openly mocked the league’s media policy since Payton took control, including intentionally being more than an hour late to Media Day at Super Bowl XLIV. A 2010 lawsuit by the Saints’ former director of security, Geoff Santini, accused Loomis of trying to cover up the theft of the prescription painkiller Vicodin by members of the football staff. The front office also ignored league directives to disassociate themselves with convicted felon Mike Ornstein, who – surprise, surprise – was also implicated in the bounty scandal.
Everybody loves a winner. Everybody, likewise, hates a sinner. And in the NFL there are few greater sins than playing dirty on the field and defying the commissioner off of it.
In this case, not even the Saints can expect salvation.
Their punishment will be harsh. It will be extensive. And it will be just.