|Photo Credit: stltoday.com|
If you're a Saints fan, you should probably stop reading this post right now, because I'm not about to say anything that's going to make you feel any better about what happened to your team this week. In case you missed it, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell levied an unprecedented punishment against the Saints organization for instituting a bounty system that encouraged injuring opposing players.
I can assure you I do not speak for the majority of Louisiana residents when I say I have no problems with this decision by the Commissioner. Harsh? Yes. Justified? Absolutely. Now granted, I don't have access to the 50,000 pages of evidence that the NFL collected during this investigation (try to wrap your head around just how much 50,000 pages is), but the NFL's official statement acknowledged the following (I've placed some of the key elements in bold text):
1. The Saints defensive team operated a pay-for-performance/bounty program, primarily funded by players, during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons. Under that program, players regularly made cash "donations" to a pool, and were "fined" for mental errors, loafing, penalties, and the like. At least one assistant coach (defensive coordinator Williams) also occasionally contributed to the pool. There is no evidence that any club money was contributed to the program.
2. Payments were made for plays such as interceptions or fumble recoveries. All such payments are against league rules. Payments also were made for plays on which opposing players were injured. In addition, specific players were sometimes targeted. The investigation showed bounties being placed on four quarterbacks of opposing teams - Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, and Kurt Warner. Multiple sources have confirmed that several players pledged funds toward bounties on specific opposing players, with defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in 2010.
3. Coach Williams acknowledged that he designed and implemented the program with the assistance of certain defensive players. He said that he did so after being told by Payton that his assignment was to make the defense "nasty." Coach Williams described his role as overseeing record keeping, defining payout amounts, deciding on who received payouts, and distributing envelopes with cash to players who "earned" rewards.
4. In each of the 2009-2011 seasons, the Saints were one of the top five teams in the league in roughing the passer penalties. In 2009 and 2011, the Saints were also in the top five teams in unnecessary roughness penalties; in 2010, the Saints ranked sixth in the category. In the January 16, 2010 divisional playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, Saints defensive players were assessed $15,000 in fines for fouls committed against opposing players. The following week, in the NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings, Saints defensive players were assessed $30,000 in fines for four separate illegal hits, several of which were directed against quarterback Brett Favre.
5. Coach Williams now acknowledges that when he was first questioned about this matter in early 2010 he intentionally misled NFL investigators and made no effort to stop the program after he became aware of the league's investigation.
6. Coach Williams further confirmed that the program continued during the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and that he occasionally contributed funds to the pool in each of those seasons.
7. Assistant Head Coach/Defense Vitt acknowledged that he was aware of the program in 2009-2011. He admitted that, when interviewed in 2010, he "fabricated the truth" to NFL investigators and denied that any pay-for- performance or bounty program existed at the Saints.
8. Coach Vitt said one of his primary roles was to monitor the activity of coach Williams. This was based on the direction of coach Payton, who apparently had less than full confidence in coach Williams. Despite coach Vitt's knowledge of the bounty program, his understanding of the terms "knock- out" and "cart-off," his witnessing coach Williams handing out envelopes that he believed to contain cash, and his acknowledgement that the defensive meeting preceding the 2010 NFC Championship Game may have "got out of hand" with respect to Brett Favre, coach Vitt claimed he never advised either coach Payton or general manager Loomis of the "pay-for-performance/bounty" program.
9. A summary prepared following a Saints preseason game included the statement, "1 Cart-off - Crank up the John Deer (sic) Tractor" in reference to a hit on an opposing player. Similar statements are reflected in prepared documents or slides in connection with other games in multiple seasons. A review of the game films confirms that opposing players were injured on the plays identified in the documents.
10. When interviewed in 2012, Payton claimed to be entirely unaware of the program, a claim contradicted by others. Further, prior to the Saints' opening game in 2011, coach Payton received an email from a close associate that stated in part, "PS Greg Williams put me down for $5000 on Rogers (sic)." When shown the email during the course of the investigation, coach Payton stated that it referred to a "bounty" on Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
11. In early 2010, Mr. Loomis advised coach Payton that the league office was investigating allegations concerning a bounty program. Coach Payton said that he met with his top two defensive assistants, coach Williams and coach Vitt, in advance of the interview with league investigators and told them, "Let's make sure our ducks are in a row." Remarkably, coach Payton claimed that he never inquired of coach Williams and coach Vitt as to what happened in the interviews, never asked them if a "pay-for-performance" or bounty program was in fact in place, and never gave any instructions to discontinue such a program.
12. In January 2012, prior to the Saints' first playoff game of the 2011 season, coach Payton was advised by Mr. Loomis that the league office had reopened the investigation. coach Payton made a cursory inquiry but took no action to ensure that any bounty program was discontinued.
13. Loomis was not present at meetings of the Saints defense at which bounties were discussed and was not aware of bounties being placed on specific players. Mr. Loomis became aware of the allegations regarding a bounty program no later than February 2010 when he was notified of the investigation into the allegations during a meeting with NFL Executive Vice President-Football Operations Ray Anderson. He was directed to ensure that any such program ceased immediately. By his own admission, Mr. Loomis did not do enough to determine if a pay-for-performance/bounty program existed or to end any such program that did exist.
14. Saints owner Tom Benson notified Mr. Loomis in January 2012 prior to the team's participation in the playoffs that the league's investigation had been reopened. Mr. Benson reiterated his position that a bounty program was unacceptable and instructed Mr. Loomis to ensure that if a bounty program existed at the Saints it would stop immediately. By his own admission, Mr. Loomis responded to this direction by making only cursory inquiries of Coaches Payton and Williams. He never issued instructions to end the bounty program to either the coaching staff or the players.
15. There is no evidence that Saints ownership had any knowledge of the pay- for-performance or bounty program. There is no evidence that any club funds were used for the program. Ownership made clear that it disapproved of the program, gave prompt and clear direction that it stop, and gave full and immediate cooperation to league investigators.
The commissioner had this to stay on the matter:
"Beyond the clear and continuing violations of league rules, and lying to investigators, the bounty program is squarely contrary to the league's most important initiatives - enhancing player health and safety and protecting the integrity of the game. Let me be clear. There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so. Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness, and safety. Programs of this kind have no place in our game and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL."
So given all of that, I'm puzzled when I hear people coming out and saying that they don't think this was justified, and that the commissioner is the bad guy here. Former New Orleans Saints quarterback, and New Orleans radio personality Bobby Hebert was on ESPN's Mike and Mike this morning, and he made two points that I found comical. One, that instead of suspending Coach Payton for the season, they should just make him coach for free and donate his salary to charity because that would still send the same message, and Two, that the NFL should offer to compensate Saints fans for imposing such a harsh penalty on their team by giving them relief on the price of season tickets. Wow. I'm not even going to address the first one because that's ludicrous. The idea that Hebert thinks that the league owes the fans for doing to this is just plain silly. Really, Bobby Hebert? Really? Roger Goodell didn't do this to the Saints. The Saints did this to themselves. They deliberately broke a rule, they were warned to stop, they didn't stop, and they tried to cover it up and lie about it. Now they're getting punished for it. You know who should step up to the plate to compensate Saints fans? THE SAINTS! Their organizational arrogance is going to prevent them from putting the best product possible on the field this season. If anyone owes the fans a refund, it's the organization. Not the league. But it's easier to blame the heavy-handed commish I guess.
Another popular complaint on the punishment is that this stuff is happening all over the league. First of all, it's not, at least not to this level. Now I grant you that almost every defensive player, past or present, who's spoken up on the matter has acknowledged that these cash pools exist for big plays, big hits, etc. But there's two key differences. One, none of those programs were run by anything more than the players, and two, none of them so blatantly described an intent to injure opponents. Look, even if you want to play the 'This is happening everywhere else' card, the reality is right now it doesn't matter. The Saints got caught doing something wrong. Period. That's not up for debate.
I tried to think of a real world scenario that paralleled this, and the best one I could come up with was speeding. Everyone speeds. The idea that speed LIMIT means you can't exceed that speed is generally scoffed at by drivers all over the country. The highway I take to and from work every day has a 70 mile per hour speed limit. If I exceed that speed limit, regardless of whether or not that's socially accepted, I have to be willing to accept the potential consequences. I was pulled over a couple years ago for doing 80 on that stretch of highway. Can I really blame the state trooper who pulled me over? Is it his fault that I exceeded the speed limit? Can I go to court and plead to the judge that I shouldn't be punished because everyone speeds on that road? Of course not! I mean I guess I could, but it's not going to do me any good. Now let's say he let me go with a warning if I promised to not speed anymore and then two weeks later, boom. Pulled over for doing 80 again. Do you think you're just going to get a little slap on the wrist? Be real. Now, generally speeding gets you a ticket and a fine, and depending on the size of the fine, it may have absolutely no effect on whether or not you'd do it again. Now imagine if the penalty for speeding was losing your license and your car for a year. Think that might make you think twice about it. It might make all of your fellow drivers think twice too. That's what this is. Roger Goodell wants to make sure this doesn't happen again. To that end, it's unfortunate for the Saints that they're the organization with the poor timing of getting caught with this now, at a time when player safety is the leg's top priority. But the fact remains that they were warned, so I can't feel bad for them.
Look, I get it. If you're a Saints fan, this stinks. But stop looking outside the organization if you want to point fingers for this (unless you're pointing your fingers at ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams). This was self-inflicted, and both could have and should have been prevented. The Saints needed to be held accountable and now it's time to move forward.