The absolute end of the New Orleans Saints’ feel-good story came Friday afternoon, when the NFL issued one of the most shocking press releases in its history.
The league revealed the results of its investigation into the Saints’ bounty system. And while bounties have been a dirty rumor and occasionally a fact in the NFL before, I found the widespread violations by the Saints both startling and disgusting.
The NFL said that somewhere between 22 and 27 New Orleans Saints defensive players had carried on a “bounty” program from 2009 through 2011, putting money in a pool and then paying it out not only for fumbles and interceptions but also for “cart-offs” ($1,000 when an opposing player was carted off the field) and “knockouts” ($1,500 when an opposing player couldn’t return). Bonuses were often doubled or tripled during the playoffs.
The bounty program was apparently supervised by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis knew about it and apparently did nothing to stop it.
Panther receiver Steve Smith – who has had a number of conflicts with Saints players over the years, including a well-publicized late hit from Saints safety Roman Harper after a touchdown in 2011 – told Pro Football Weekly’s Eric Edholm about the bounty program: “Doesn’t surprise me. Wouldn’t expect anything less from them.”
To me this is worse than New England’s “Spygate.” This flies in the face of all the NFL’s safety improvements.
Said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement: “The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players. The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: Player safety and competitive integrity.”
While the crime has now been publicized, the punishment has not. But it’s certain the NFL will lower the boom. There will be fines. Suspensions. And as for Williams, now the defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams, I believe he should never coach again in the NFL.
The Saints surely will lose draft picks. The first one they hold in the 2012 draft is only No. 59 overall, but taking a future first-round pick away from them in 2013 seems likely. And that Super Bowl they won after the 2009 season? That’s forever tarnished.
So will all this shift the NFC South balance of power away from the Saints?
The Patriots ultimately survived “Spygate” just fine, despite substantial fines and the loss of a first-round draft pick. But the bounty punishments here should and will be worse.
The quickest way for the NFL to darken the Saints’ fortunes would be to not allow the team to use the franchise tag on quarterback Drew Brees if the two sides don’t come to a contractual agreement. If Brees stays, the Saints will still score points by the bucket load – remember, this is only about defense.
But the loss of multiple draft picks will damage the Saints. And defensive suspensions will further muddy the waters. At the very least, the Saints will be a good team to play early in the 2012 season when suspensions would take effect (barring appeals).
Bottom line: The Saints are about to get clocked. And Atlanta and Carolina are the two teams most primed to do something about it if New Orleans falters.
If all this is true – and the NFL’s report certainly sounds thorough – I hope someone does take over as the NFC South’s best team. Because what the Saints allegedly did is awful.
I’m not naive enough to think this doesn’t happen elsewhere in the NFL – although I have never heard of such a thing with the Panthers. But the Saints’ level of blatant rule violation – plus how far up this stink rose in their organization without being stopped – is amazing.
In a statement released by the Rams, Williams (who while the Saints’ defensive coordinator occasionally contributed to the bounty pool of money) said: “It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again.”
Do you believe him? I don’t.
Williams didn’t stop it when he had a chance, over and over.
Because it was working.