Even before Gregg Williams’ controversial speech, an NFL culture change was inevitable

If Gregg Williams ever returns to the NFL, he'll have to change his way of doing things.
(AP)

If you’ve never been inside a team meeting on the eve of an important NFL game – or, in some cases, even if you have – the audio recording of former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ now infamous speech from last January likely made you feel shocked, appalled or disgusted.

In the wake of the bounty scandal that led NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to impose harsh penalties on, among others, Saints coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and Williams (since hired by the St. Louis Rams), the coach’s motivational words to his defensive players before their playoff defeat to the San Francisco 49ers brought a human and highly specific thread to the story.

Predictably, the reactions to filmmaker Sean Pamphilon’s recording have been nearly as charged, over-the-top and loaded as Williams’ rhetoric.

Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins called Pamphilon a “coward” and incorrectly implied that the documentarian was paid in conjunction with the release of the audio. Numerous Saints fans claimed conspiracy, alleging that the NFL (which was unaware of the tape’s existence until Yahoo! Sports posted its story early Thursday morning) somehow orchestrated its revelation to coincide with Thursday’s appeal hearings for Payton, Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt.

Others vilified Williams for his impudence, insisting that his indefinite suspension – which will last at least the entire 2012 season – should be extended to a lifetime ban.

I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, and I’m sure I’ll be sharing many of them in the weeks and months ahead. For now, I’d like to focus on the misguided notion that the demonization of either the messenger (Pamphilon) or the message-giver (Williams) somehow solves the problem – and look to a future in which the NFL can evolve to a healthier, less ambiguous place.

[ Related: Saints not alone in straddling line ]

Clearly, a culture change is upon us. The increased attention on the perilous effects of head trauma, the rules interpretations instituted in the 2010 season and the recent lawsuits filed by former players who suffered concussions during their careers have created a tipping point – and the bounty scandal was Goodell’s call to action.

Seizing upon a regime that openly flouted his authority and whose leaders lied to his investigators, Goodell made a statement to the NFL community, and to the sport’s massive fan base, that there is a new world order when it comes to jeopardizing the health of the men who play the game in a gratuitous and cavalier manner.

It’s fair to question the league’s motivation for this sea change, ascribing it to a fear of legal culpability and/or an effort to protect the brand. However, I also believe that there’s sincerity behind Goodell’s effort to enhance player safety, borne of a genuine regard for the men who play the game and a sense that adjustments must occur for the business model to survive and thrive.

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. All you need to know is this: Goodell isn’t having any appearance of headhunting on his watch, and if you’re representing The Shield, you had best wrap your head around this concept.

Williams, clearly, hadn’t come around as of January – and now he’s having what amounts to a very, very severe reality check. He’s going to have a long time to think about the line that exists between hyperbole and misbehavior, and he’s obviously a poster child for all that ails pro football.

Yet the notion that he might have coached his last NFL game is disturbing to me, for many reasons. Chiefly, I believe that he can return from his suspension as an enlightened and repentant force for change who can serve as a powerful example of the New NFL that Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith are trying to create.

While his actions certainly were wrong, Williams is the product of a culture that prods players to reach levels of recklessness, ferocity and intensity that allow them to succeed in a violent sport, and I have a hard time holding him up as the anti-Christ in that context.

The fact that other coaches certainly have made similarly inciting statements and/or placed bounties on opposing players does not excuse Williams’ behavior. However, there’s a reason Williams is very good at his job – among other things, he’s an expert on getting his players into a frothed-up emotional state. And if you think most other coaches, on any level, aren’t trying to accomplish something similar, you’re either a very casual observer or are completely naïve.

On Thursday morning I spoke with Duke Naipohn, a behavioral specialist who spent much of the 2011 season with the Saints and who describes himself as a friend of Williams’. In response to Williams’ words on the audio tape – and those he heard in similar contexts before 16 of the team’s 18 games this season – Naipohn suggested that they were digested differently by the audience for which they were intended than by the public at large.

The Saints had some questionable hits on Brett Favre in the NFC title game two years ago.
(AP)

“Leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish the mission,” Naipohn said. “How a leader prepares his team to perform the mission is not to be second-guessed because without a full understanding of the mission, you won’t understand the context of it.”

An NFL coach who knows Williams well told me this: “If you know Gregg, you know not to take that stuff literally. That’s just the way he talks.”

[ Related: Louisiana senate makes plea for leniency ]

The existence of a bounty program tends to dispute the assertion that Williams’ words weren’t literal, but I understand what that coach and Naipohn are saying: I believe there’s a very good chance that at least some of the men to whom Williams spoke didn’t assume that their coach was actually exhorting them to, for example, try to tear 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree’s anterior cruciate ligament.

I also know that football is an astoundingly violent game which, at its highest level, essentially requires the men who play it to suspend rational thought.

“Look at the [new rules interpretations pertaining to] blows to the head,” Eagles tight end Brent Celek said Thursday. “They’re asking guys to make decisions as though they’re in a normal state – when, in reality, we’re all in an altered state when we play this game. Certainly, Williams’ words were disturbing, but I also understand what’s behind it. We all try to find a way to get to that altered state in order to play this sport.”

Williams, throughout his career, has been a master at getting players to perform with abandon and ferocity. Consider that Payton, when he hired Williams as his defensive coordinator in January 2009, paid $250,000 of his own salary to get the deal done.

That, in a sense, was the first bounty payment.

As Pamphilon pointed out in his long essay explaining his decision to release the audio tape, Williams carried himself as an autonomous figure who was the de facto head coach of the Saints’ defense. In this sense, I can understand why his players would be willing to participate in the bounty-payoff system – I’m sure they feared that if they didn’t get with the program, they’d be deemed replaceable.

[ Related: LeGarrette Blount would have no problem if he was the subject of a bounty ]

For that reason alone, I don’t believe the players in question should be punished severely. I also don’t believe Jenkins and his teammates should rail against Pamphilon for his decision to show the world what went on in that meeting – the scandal already existed, and this was merely a means of making it resonate to the outside world. Don’t shoot the messenger, or put a bounty on him.

Some people have suggested that, with the release of the tape, Goodell can’t possibly allow Williams to coach again. While I agree that this was a watershed moment, I believe the commissioner will view this situation from a more enlightened perspective.

Williams, unlike his former colleagues, didn’t appeal his suspension. He has issued a pair of public apologies and otherwise has remained quiet. And I believe he’ll devote his time away from football to thinking intently about the reason for the existence of a line governing this type of behavior and why it’s important that people in his profession must no longer cross it.

In the wake of Michael Vick’s incarceration on charges relating to a federal dogfighting conspiracy, many thought the disgraced quarterback’s NFL career was toast. Vick had lied to Goodell’s face, betrayed his trust and tarnished The Shield beyond belief, and there were reasons to believe he’d be persona non grata as long as Goodell was in charge.

That would have one way to play it. Instead, Goodell met with Vick, decided the ex-convict deserved another shot and set the stage for one of the more deliciously redemptive sports stories we’ve seen in this era.

If Goodell gives Williams another chance, I believe the reinstated coach could be a compelling and poignant spokesperson for the new world order the commissioner is trying to create. Should that occur, Williams’ words would really carry weight with his intended audience.

And that, football fans, would be truly powerful.

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Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Apr 6, 2012