So with a mountain of evidence containing upwards of 18,000 documents and 50,000 pages, the National Football League is about to lay the hammer on the New Orleans Saints organization for allegedly rewarding players for ‘bounties’ towards opposing players, most notably Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, during the playoffs following the 2009 season.
Is anyone really surprised?
With Bounties, Gregg Williams Follows In Mentors’ Footsteps
The most notable example given by Adam Schefter on a certain cable TV outlet based out of Bristol, Connecticut has Jonathan Vilma going Bobby the Brain Heenan in the days leading up to the NFC Championship, allegedly putting up a cash reward to any player successful in knocking Brett Favre out of that game.
Vilma’s offer to any teammate who’d knock Favre off his walker and onto the sidelines two years ago was chump change; he only put $10,000 out on the table. (Bobby Heenan put up $25,000 for anyone successful in ending the professional wrestling career of Paul Orndorff. And that was in 1985 dollars.)
But despite the well-warranted public outrage, targeting the opposition, particularly the opposing quarterback, is almost as old as football itself.
Al Davis famously said, ‘The quarterback must go down, and must go down hard…’
Teams attempting to take out Jim McMahon back in the day was a weekly occurrence, and often successful. Green Bay’s Charles Martin ended McMahon’s season once by body-slamming him onto the turf five seconds after he threw the ball. And Charlie also had a hand towel of about seven other Chicago Bears players he wanted a piece of that day.
Allegations of teammates and coaches offering bounties are also nothing new. In 1989, kicker Luis Zendajas of the 1-15 Dallas Cowboys was allegedly the target of a bounty during his team’s 27-0 loss to Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving Day.
Question #1 for Ryan would be: why the hell were the Eagles were bothering with a kicker weighing 180 pounds soaking wet?
Question #2 was: why were the Eagles intent on intimidating a team that was horrendous that year, even if they were a division rival?
This brings us from Buddy Ryan, who helped create disciple Jeff Fisher, who in turn spawned Gregg Williams as a defensive coordinator, who eventually landed on that Super Bowl winning New Orleans team.
Even before the bounty revelations came to light, the Saints were talking about roughing up quarterbacks during the Super Bowl 44 run, whether it be Warner, Favre, or eventually Peyton Manning, with Gregg Williams talking about ‘Remember Me’ hits.
The evidence gathered by the NFL is damning, with upwards of 27 players involved. ‘Knockouts’ were said to be worth $1,500, ‘cart-offs’ another $1,000, with rewards tripled for the playoffs.
The NFL said the findings were made by multiple, independent sources, through an investigation by league security.
What Punishment Will Saints Get?
Now for the much larger question: what is the league going to do about it?
Knowing Roger Goodell’s track record, plenty.
I would imagine several of the players who may have been involved will be facing stiff fines and suspensions. That would not go far enough. The coaches involved also have to be punished, and severely.
Gregg Williams is now slated be the defensive coordinator for Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. I say Williams should be suspended for one year. I also feel that Saints head coach Sean Payton should be suspended for at least a portion of the 2012 regular season. Payton reportedly was not directly involved, but knew about the bounty system and did nothing to stop it.
There is also talk of stripping draft picks from the Saints (note: the Saints have already traded their 2012 first-rounder), but that doesn’t even go far enough. I guess theoretically the league could force the team to ‘vacate’ its Super Bowl 44 title (NCAA style), but that’s not going to happen and probably shouldn’t.
As Jerod Morris explained to me as the story broke, this is not just a New Orleans Saints problem; it is widespread throughout the league, as many NFL reporters like @RealFreemanCBS discussed today on Twitter. The Saints’ story is likely just the tip of the iceberg.
Combine this with the growing list of former players lining up in lawsuits against the NFL in regards to the physical price they paid playing the game in prior generations, and the question becomes, what can be done?? Roger Goodell has tried curbing overly physical play with staggering fines, but I’m not sure that is the solution.
Look at what the Saints accomplished in 2009, which surely outweighs any fine. Certainly it was Mission Accomplished with Favre.
Everyone knows how the last pass from Favre in that game turned out. Favre could have crawled for a 3-4 yard gain and Ryan Longwell would have had a look at a 50-51 yard field goal. Favre takes the heat, and admittedly threw a terrible pass at the most crucial time, but the reality is that Favre was a beaten up man by that point in the game, and the Saints had him intimidated.
New Orleans wound up with the win and ultimately the Super Bowl trophy. For the team and coaching staff, that would have been well worth whatever fines would have been levied along the way, and I’m sure James Harrison would agree with me.
However, you’ve all heard lines such as ‘payback is hell’ and ‘what goes around comes around’. The Vikings could have just as easily targeted Drew Brees in that same game, and if Brees remains with the Saints, he isn’t probably going to get as much sympathy if he gets KO’d by a questionable hit at any point for the remainder of his Saints career.
But that isn’t right either.
How Can NFL Prevent Future On-Field Bounty Hunting?
The NFL needs to eject players in-game for late hits. A 15-yard penalty and eventual fine later on does not cut it.
In fact, football should take a cue from soccer.
When a player makes any sort of dangerous foul in soccer, he gets a yellow card. In the NFL, ‘X’ number of yellow cards in a season and he should miss a game. Two ‘yellow cards’ in the playoffs would also merit a one-game suspension, and if that means a player missing the Super Bowl, then that would be the consequences and ultimately gets the message appropriately across.
The NBA actually does this with flagrant fouls over the course of a season, and I believe some sort of ‘warning card’ system in the NFL would do wonders.
In soccer when a player makes an over-the-top dangerous play, the referee has the option of handing out a straight red card. I wouldn’t mind seeing that sort of discipline being applied in the NFL. Video replay can also be used to determine if a player’s actions warrant ejection. A separate video official can be used for that.
Once again, fines don’t send the message across quite like missing games. That even started to sink in with Ndamukong Suh once he crossed the line too often this past season.
One last factoid about Gregg Williams and the culture Jeff Fisher cultivated with his staff (including current Lions HC Jim Schwartz) during his tenure coaching the Tennessee Titans. From 2001-2010, the Titans committed 163 15-yard penalties. During that time frame no other team in the league committed more than 137.
And another breaking story:
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy texts that Peyton Manning was the target of bounties during Colts/Titans games, and in a segment on his NBC gig last August noted that he believed Manning’s neck problems first surfaced after taking a hit during a game against the Washington Redskins in 2006. Guess who the defensive coordinator on that team was?
Also, both Kurt Warner and Brett Favre spoke out on different outlets on Friday. Neither said they held ill-will against the Saints organization, and each looked at the injuries they sustained as merely football incidents. You can hear Warner talk in depth about his blindside hit on an INT return on a Phoenix radio interview here. Look for even more of these types of disclosures and revelations as the weekend goes on.
Final Thought on Saints and Bounties
Meanwhile, he New Orleans Saints 2009 season should not be considered tainted.
The culture of roughing up the opposition by any means, within or even beyond the rules, has existed to some extent throughout the NFL since Day One. The mission now is to crack down on that culture and institute discipline that will make players and coaches alike think twice before acting in such a manner.