49ers returner Kyle Williams after fumbling in the NFC Championship game. (Getty Images)
The timing could not have been worse for Sean Payton and his cabal of soon-to-be-suspended New Orleans Saints coaches, executives, and players: On the very day Payton and other team personnel will appeal their suspensions at the NFL's head office in New York City for their involvement in the Saints' bounty scandal, Yahoo's own Mike Silver has an incendiary story in which it is revealed that former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ordered specific injurious hits on San Francisco 49ers players, and used the "cash" sign when doing so, at a team meeting before the Saints' 36-32 divisional round loss to the 49ers.
Silver got the information from filmmaker Sean Pamphilon, who had access to team meetings and functions while working on a documentary on former Saints player Steve Gleason, who's currently battling ALS. More injurious to the Saints' appeals: According to several reports, the team was warned by the league just two weeks before to stop any intent or mention of bounty practices. It is not yet known whether the NFL became aware of Williams' speech during the investigation that led to the suspensions.
From the Silver story and the audio you can hear here (Warning: it's NSFW -- pretty profane stuff), here's Williams on 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, with after he trots out his old "Kill the head and the body will die" favorite:
"We hit [expletive] Smith right there' — then he points under his chin [and continues] — 'remember me.' Then he rubs his thumb against his index and middle fingers — the cash sign — and says, 'I got the first one. I got the first one. Go get it. Go lay that [expletive] out."
That's Pamphilon claiming that Williams used the cash sign. Then, Williams on 49ers running back Frank Gore:
"We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways."
Williams on 49ers running back Kendall Hunter:
"Little 32, we want to knock the [expletive] out of him. He has no idea what he's in for. When he's on the sideline, we've gotta turn that [expletive] over, turn their coaches over, turn the spectators over. Go and get that [expletive] on the sidelines."
Perhaps most disturbing for a league that is at least trying to present the appearance of concussion prevention, there's Williams encouraging his defenders to "...every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head … continue to touch and affect the head."
Williams then got specific about receiver/returner Kyle Williams, a player who had suffered multiple concussions:
"We need to find out in the first two series of the game, the little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion. We need to [expletive] put a lick on him, move him to decide. He needs to decide."
If you're familiar with Gregg Williams' history -- a history that I have suggested should lead to a lifetime ban -- none of this should come as a surprise. But it might surprise you to know that the Saints weren't the only team in last year's playoffs going after Kyle Williams because they knew he was more vulnerable as a person who had suffered multiple head injuries.
After the New York Giants beat the 49ers 20-17 in overtime of the NFC Championship game, Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams specifically explained that his team was targeting Kyle Williams. It was a strategy that apparently worked -- Williams fumbled two punt returns on the day -- but there really isn't much difference between Gregg Williams' stated intent and what Jacquian Williams recalled:
"The thing is, we knew he had four concussions, so that was our biggest thing, was to take him out of the game."
Receiver Devin Thomas, who recovered both of Williams' fumbles, said that "he's had a lot of concussions. We were just like, 'We've got to put a hit on that guy.'" Thomas then said that safety Tyler Sash "did a great job hitting him early and he looked kind of dazed when he got up. I feel like that made a difference and he coughed it up."
When asked about the Giants' statements, league spokesman Greg Aiello said that whatever happened on the field in the NFC Championship game wasn't a big deal. "Players are held accountable for their actions on the field," Aiello stated via e-mail. "There were no illegal hits to the head or neck area against Kyle Williams on Sunday. There was no conduct by the Giants of any kind that would suggest an effort to injure Kyle Williams in any way."
Except for their specific words after the game, that is.
Look, I'm not trying to excuse what Williams and the Saints did by pointing the finger elsewhere. But it is very important to point out that at a time when the Saints seem to have become the symbol of all that is wrong with the game of football, there are other players on other teams saying and doing very similar things. They're doing it with more friendly media-speak, the F-bombs are scrubbed out, and they weren't specifically warned before the playoffs to stop what they had been doing, but it is naive in the extreme to believe that this specific "ideal" only grows in New Orleans.
One of the reasons Roger Goodell came down so hard on the Saints is that the practice of intentional injury is prevalent enough that people feel comfortable speaking openly about their intentions. But to use Gregg Williams' own language, killing the Saints won't quite kill the head in this case.
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