They wanted the Super Bowl so much they were willing to sell their souls to get it.
Never did a city long for a championship more than New Orleans in those years after Hurricane Katrina, when rebuilding came slow and inspiration ran dry. And rarely did a coach lust after a title more than Sean Payton, scorned previously as a boy wonder in over his head. Just like Mickey Loomis, the man who hired him, Payton ached to hold the Lombardi Trophy – touch it, caress it and feel the confetti as it spilled down all around.
And so they paid the price.
This isn't about Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator who ran the bounty program that brought the Saints down, although his hiring was the final piece that delivered a title. What happened to Payton and Loomis and the Saints, who are now ruined as an NFC force, goes deeper than one man and a few thousand dollars thrown around some adrenaline-filled meeting rooms. Rather it lies in a culture – one nurtured by the coach but ultimately endorsed by everyone – of a frenetic, win-at-all-costs mentality.
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It began with Payton, who burned with such intensity on a tape made by the league of possible head coaching candidates that Loomis was immediately taken by his fire. At the time it seemed like an odd hire, giving the task of remaking the Saints in the months after Katrina to a man who had never been a head coach. But it turned out to be such a brilliant selection that oversight disappeared and everything became the Payton tornado that tore through the team's practice facility.
There might not be a better play-caller in the NFL than Payton, who found ways to get take obscure players such as Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham and turn them into stars. But along with the film-room wisdom came wild motivational speeches and the constant appearance of Mike Ornstein, the former marketing manager for Reggie Bush who has since twice been convicted of fraud yet moved as freely about the locker room as any coach. A feeling this could all roll out of control always lingered around the team. So thick was the hubris. But so desperate was the will to win big.
Never was that more apparent than in the hiring of Williams, who stalked sidelines with his own brashness. Most defensive players who have been with Williams enjoyed working for him. He connects to their innate desire to hit with fury. He screams. He insults. He spits upon those things that trip up others like the word "voluntary" in voluntary workout programs. His defenses are aggressive, bombastic and effective. And unlike many other coaches, he is not political, which has often been his downfall.
Where others might have hidden a bounty program or found another motivational tactic, Williams celebrated it. According to the league, he sometimes threw his own money in the pot. He has always pushed limits – this is how he has been. And hiring him amounted to an implicit understanding of just who he would be as a coach. Payton linked himself forever to Williams by paying the final $250,000 it took from his own salary to hire the coordinator.
Then together they won Super Bowl XLIV.
And never did it feel more right.
Roger Goodell had no choice but to hammer the Saints. The commissioner never saw the concussion issue coming – no one around league circles did – and his initial arrogance in dispelling it, waving a dismissive hand to the initial links between head trauma and early-onset dementia and Alzheimer's, cost the league. In multiple humiliating sessions before Congress, Goodell and league lawyers were attacked for their inability to address issues of concussions and long-term disability.
Finally realizing the issue would not disappear and facing litigation over head injuries, Goodell has responded in recent years with flimsy attempts to make the game appear safer. Much of what he has come up with is heavy-handed and arbitrary as in bigger fines for high-profile plays.
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Once he had evidence the Saints were paying bounties for knocking players out of games, he couldn't close his eyes. The issue had become too big. Imagine the beating the league would take in a concussion trial if evidence arose that Goodell knew of a bounty program and didn't react strongly. Payton and Williams were doomed.
Williams left New Orleans before the scandal broke, running to join Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. Now Payton is gone for a year, probably never to return to the Saints. He can't come back. Not after this. Without their genius play-caller and the man who burned so much to win, the Saints are done as a Super Bowl contender. What good is Drew Brees without the man who made him one of the league's best quarterbacks? Slowly the great offensive machine collapses. A football darkness falls in New Orleans again.
Lingering forever is the trophy, gleaming, glistening; the one that sent the city into an uproarious delight on the night it was won from the wild celebration in the French Quarter to the thousands who stood in the darkness on a Treme street corner singing "When the Saints Come Marching In."
Always now the symbol of all who sold their souls to make it happen.
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