16 March 2012
My steady readers (all three of you, and if you were really “steady,” you probably wouldn’t read me) will recall that I have been a New Orleans Saints fan since I was 9 or 10 years old. The Super Bowl winning season of 2009 was the vindication of years of paper bags on our heads and derisive remarks by the rest of the league. That made the recent allegations of a bounty system one of the most disappointing incidents in a lifetime of disappointment. All indications are that, for at least 3 seasons, the Saints operated a private slush fund to reward players for taking out opponents. Although it shouldn’t be, the money is the more troubling part. It’s practically ingrained in players, especially defensive players, to better their odds by removing an opponent’s best players from the field. The well worn college version of this scheme is to send your team out of the tunnel to instigate a fight and have your fourth string punter target their All-American quarterback, hoping both will be ejected. And it’s not just in football. Heck, hockey is practically fundamentally about beating the crap out of each other for 60 minutes. Various terms have been employed for this type of play: “Leave ‘em your calling card;” “Make ‘em remember you;” “Ring his bell;” “Make ‘em nervous when you’re on the ice.”
Football isn’t much different in that respect. Tackling is seemingly not taught or desired to be taught anymore. Defensive backs are taught the art of the “kill shot.” Safeties make a living out of knocking receivers out of their dentures with crushing hits nanoseconds after the ball arrives. It’s something embarrassing that the league is intent on eradicating from the game. Hefty fines have been levied for plays that once would have been lauded, even just a few years ago. I remember going to one Memphis Maniax game with my friend Randy in 2001. Vince McMahon had made a big deal out of putting violence, not wrestling violence, but REAL violence back in the game. It was different, that’s for sure. I don’t recall a lot of the game, other than it was sloppy football. One of Vince’s other selling points was scantilyclad cheerleaders. They had 12 women who rotated around the stadium dancing on platforms erected by the sideline walls at the four corners of the field. I recall that the game was so gripping that the men around us began to complain that they wanted the last set of cheerleaders back. Someone should have warned Vince that is barely there cheerleader outfits were part of your draw, don’t play ball outside in Memphis, Chicago, and New York in February. The only innovation Vince successfully integrated into Pro Football was the SkyCam.
What does that have to do with BountyGate, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked! The only specific play I recall was a drop-back pass in which a blitzing linebacker came untouched through the offensive line and torpedoed the quarterback. I’d heard the old line about leaving him “looking out his ear-hole,” the ventilation hole in the side of his helmet, but that was the first (and only) time I’d actually seen it. The QB laid there, completely motionless, for 10 or 15 minutes. I expected to see them cutting his shoulder pads off and start CPR. I was literally concerned that the guy might be dead. He never came back in the game, but he came back from the locker room and paced the sidelines to fire up his team. Testosterone can be a beautiful and awful thing.
Fast forward to the past couple of years back to the recent run of success the Saints have had. There were multiple allegations of “dirty play” against the Saints, most notably what appeared to be an attempt to rip Brett Favre’s foot off his carcass in the 2009 NFC Championship game. Favre was clearly hobbled even when he returned to the game, and very likely tossed the game-losing interception because he felt like he couldn’t run well enough to cover the completely empty 10 yards in front of him and slide to a game-clenching first down. However, even Favre said it was “just football.” As a lifelong fan, I took most of the “dirty play” stuff as sour grapes. We weren’t the lovable losers anymore; a tussle with us was more than a bye week. Gregg Williams, in 2009, was a defensive wizard. For the first time, the Saints were great on both sides of the ball at the same time. In the early 1990s, when Former GM Jim Finks created a defense that was a terror stacked with, arguably, the best 3-4 scheme linebacking unit ever in Swilling-Mills-Johnson- Jackson. The offense, however, struggled for consistency under a succession of quarterbacks Bobby Hebert/Wade Wilson/Steve Walsh/Mike Buck. I remember a game against the Vikings where their offense never took a snap in Saints territory. They crossed midfield once, to the Saints 48, then got a dead-ball foul, “false start, number XX, 5 yards, still 3rd down.” The defense could hold, but you cringed every time the offense came onto the field. Once, in a game quarterbacked by Aaron Brooks, we got the ball with a couple of minutes to play, needing a touchdown drive, and I realized I had absolutely no faith in #2 to get us there.
Other times, particularly in Drew Brees’ early tenure, we could light up the scoreboard almost at will, but couldn’t hold back a snail with a tugboat. That all changed when Gregg Williams arrived. The defense was suddenly electric! Every time they took the field, you knew they’d make a play: a key stop; a forced fumble; a critical sack; an interception, maybe even a pick-6, ala Tracy Porter in Super Bowl XLIV! The defensive turnaround was extraordinary! Turnover margin soared!
Then, in the past two seasons, we seemed to lose that hunger, the ball-hawking intensity. The turnover margin plummeted. After the five turnover loss to the Niners in the divisional playoffs, Greg Williams had officially used up his capital from the SB season. Something had to change, and it did when Williams left for St Louis. I think it was either Don Banks or Peter King who said they doubted Williams would have been welcome to stay even if he hadn’t been hired elsewhere. The Saints basically traded defensive coordinators, as former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo was hired to replace Williams.
Then come the revelations that the NFL had what it called “irrefutable truth” that the Saints defense ran a “bounty” program for at least three years, under the direction of Williams. Williams initially denied, then came clean about his involvement, his DEEP involvement. It’s not yet clear whether the Rams had any inkling of this before hiring Williams, but I have to think they didn’t. They didn’t hire a part-time assistant coach; they hired a coordinator, one of two coaches that report directly to the head coach. This was not an inconsequential hire by the Rams.
Saints head coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis (who is looking more and more like Bill Kuharich every day) also denied direct involvement, or even concrete knowledge of the scheme, but issued the most watery, white-washed, nothing-to-it statement I’ve ever seen, saying they took responsibility for what happened “on our watch,” and apologized, mostly just to owner Tom Benson, who, it was said, had nothing to do with the scandal.
Hold on, though. The NFL claims to have proof that it notified Benson of their investigation, and Benson ordered Loomis to put a stop to it. According to the NFL, Loomis not only failed to stop it, but failed to do anything substantive at all! This, to me, is a case of a General Manager willfully ignoring an order from his boss, and implicates Loomis almost as fully as Williams. That’s approaching a firing offense for an employee, in my book. Payton, for his part… well, I find it hard to believe something like this could happen without a head coach’s knowledge. There are reports of LOUD meetings where defensive players (most notably LB and defensive co-captain, Jonathan Vilma) offering large rewards for specific acts or targeted players. Anywhere from 22-27 players are reported to be implicated.
This is NOT the kind of team I want to be a fan of!! I am loyal, sometimes to a fault, but this makes me sincerely angry with my team. I’m not dropping a favorite team, something I’ve done only once in my life, in the late 1980s to the Dallas Cowboys. But for the first time, even in the bag-head days, I’m embarrassed by my team.
Indications are that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to put this thing to bed before the annual League meeting later this month, but may be waiting until Peyton Manning lands somewhere in one of the biggest free-agent signings in League history, so as not to steal the man’s spotlight. But before Goodell renders his decision, I’ll give him my advice. Someone please forward this to him.
This has to be the heaviest hammer ever to fall on a team, its staff, and its players. The League has been sued by a number of former players claiming the league didn’t do enough to prevent or deal with injuries, particularly concussions. So the Saints draw the short straw for being the one the State Trooper pulled over, regardless of how many others are speeding.
1. Team: $1,000,000-5,000,000 fine, loss of most, if not all, draft picks this year and probably some next year or even the 2014 Draft. Ineligible for the playoffs this year.
Goodell may spread that hit out over a few seasons. I’ve read that he doesn’t want to cripple a team and leave them totally uncompetitive, like, say, last year’s Colts. But if every other team in the league is not scrambling to end anything similar in their locker room, they will after the Saints get hammered. (Get it? Hammered? In New Orleans? Can you say, “Mardi Gras?”) Teams might even consider fessing up and pleading for mercy. Because at LEAST 3 teams are pretty much known to have done similar things. The playoffs thing is a common NCAA penalty, it just might fit here, and Tampa, Atlanta, and Carolina are probably drooling at the prospect, all the while trying to ferret out and cover up their own indiscretions, should they have any.
2. Former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams - One year suspension, $500,000 fine.
Williams seems to be the common denominator, here. He has personally implicated, by association if nothing else, at least three other teams that he worked for before coming to New Orleans. The Saints’ bounty system started the first year he was there. He HAS to sit a year. How that will affect his employment with the Rams remains to be seen. At a minimum, he won’t get paid this year, and may be fired “for cause.” That’s one for the lawyers, who are salivating all over this whole mess.
3. Current General Manager Mickey Loomis – At least 8 games, up to a full season suspension, $500,000 fine. His suspension should start NOW, before the draft. If they have no picks, that may be a toothless penalty, though. I already think Loomis may be the loose nut in the Brees Contract Extension dispute. How do you not pay the man who gave you your first Super Bowl, not just a trip, but a WIN, and who just broke the 27 year old record of a first ballot Hall-of-Famer? He probably should be FIRED, if he willfully disobeyed a direct order from his boss. But so far, Benson is publicly backing his front office and coaching staff, minus Williams, of course.
4. Current Head Coach Sean Payton – 4-8 game suspension, $250,000 fine. Again, depending on how crippling Goodell wants to be. Coincidentally, $250,000 is the amount that Payton was reported to have given up in HIS contract to land Williams back in ‘09. Maybe not so coincidentally. A head coach has to have control of his team, and if Payton didn’t, that may be worse than knowing it but turning a blind eye. And this is on top of what has yet to come of “VicodinGate,” which seems to have quietly disappeared.
5. Current Saints LB Jonathan Vilma – 8-16 game suspension, $250,000 fine. A leader in a football locker room, offense or defense, is one of the most influential players on the team. How many of the 21-26 other guys would have thought this was a Mortal Sin before seeing their Captain leading the war cry?
6. Other players, Saints and Former Saints – 2-4 game suspensions, $10,000-$100,000 fines, depending on their level of involvement. Expect to see every game since the start of the 2009 season reviewed, looking for Saints wrenching ankle, taking shots at knees, chins, heads, and anywhere else a player was rumored to be already hurting.
I’m usually a hangin’ judge. It hurts when I have to recommend that for my own team, but they have earned it, and I agree that the NFL has to appear to be extremely harsh here. I hope we can rebound in 2013 and contend again, legitimately.