ESPN's Adam Schefter was the first to report that the New Orleans Saints are alleged to have maintained a "bounty system" through at least the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons. The NFL's security department believes that between 22 and 27 defensive players on the team, as well as at least one assistant coach, maintained a program funded primarily by players that rewarded tackles inflicting injuries on opposing players, resulting in those players being removed from a game.
Reportedly, not only did then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (now with the St. Louis Rams) had full knowledge of (and contributed to) the bounty fund, but Bob Glauber of Newsday indicated that head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis knew of the practice and refused to put a stop to it when team owner Tom Benson told them to. According to Schefter, the reports from league security have been corroborated by several independent sources.
The investigation started in 2010, on the belief that the Saints were targeting quarterbacks such as Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. A hard hit to Warner by defensive end Bobby McCray on an interception in the 2009 divisional playoffs ended Warner's career.
One week later, in the NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings, Favre was injured when McCray appeared to go low at his knees. The Saints were flagged three times for personal fouls in that game, and fined $30,000 after the fact for four different hits, including three on Favre.
"His defenses have always been aggressive," Vikings then-head coach Brad Childress told NOLA.com of Williams' blitz schemes before the Vikings-Saints rematch to start the 2010 season. "We were able to face them for a number of years when we were with the Eagles [and] he was with Washington. It's always been a 'storm the castle' type of approach.
"[He's] kind of known for that, even when he was back at Tennessee back with Jeff [Fisher]. I understand a quarterback's going to get hit, people are going to get hit. It's football. I don't have any illusions about that. What I hate to see are late hits or attempts to hurt anybody. I don't think there's a place for that in the game."
Childress' Vikings are not the only team left wondering about Williams' tactics. In a preseason game last August between the Saints and San Francisco 49ers, Jim Harbaugh (in his first game as an NFL head coach) was certainly wondering why Williams was bringing six and seven defenders against quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick, when the general protocol that early in the exhibition season is to play vanilla defenses -- in the interest of putting offensive game plans together and keeping players from getting hurt before the season even starts.
Harbaugh, an old-school guy to the core, said that the blitzes didn't bother him because they forced the team to work out its protection issues. But left tackle Joe Staley was surprised, saying that he didn't expect that from an established defense going up against a revamped offense still finding its feet after the lockout.
On Friday afternoon, Wililams tried to defer the upcoming firestorm with this statement, released through the Rams:
"I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. Benson, and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the 'pay for performance' program while I was with the Saints. 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."
In his first public statement after the findings were released, Benson seemed to have trouble grasping the severity of the situation.
"I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation. While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans."
Something tells us it won't be that easy. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, long an advocate (at least verbally) for player safety, released the following statement on Friday:
"It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated.
"We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.
"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."
Goodell has apparently said that he will have jurisdiction over any penalties meted out to the Saints, who could be fined, find some of their coaches suspended, and could lose draft picks as a result. Add in the fact that bounties are non-contract bonuses that violate the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the Saints are going to be cleaning this one up for a good, long time.
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