As bounty fallout continues, Goodell to make example of Saints
Gregg Williams, Mickey Loomis, Sean Payton, Jonathan Vilma face suspensions
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Much of my reporting on the burgeoning bounty scandal with the New Orleans Saints is contained in a story written for Sports Illustrated this week. Please watch my Twitter account, @SI_PeterKing, on Tuesday for a link to it. And, of course, look for it in the magazine this week.
On Friday night of Super Bowl weekend, I met Steve Gleason, the former Saint now suffering with Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS), at a restaurant in downtown Indianapolis. There was a big group at the table. Gleason, as part of his foundation to help ALS patients live meaningful lives, brought a fellow patient from Louisiana with him, and I brought along a couple of guests, including a friend, Field Yates, once an intern with Bill Belichick's Patriots. Yates told a story of a Patriots game against the Saints during Gleason's career, and how Belichick had told him to watch Gleason on the field, because he was one of the best special-teamers in the NFL. "Just watch,'' Belichick told him. Sure enough, Gleason creamed a Patriot, legally, on a kicking-team play during the game.
Someone brought up the crushing hits by James Harrison of the Steelers, and Gleason turned wistful. "I used to love those hits,'' Gleason said. "Now I don't love them so much anymore.''
Gleason is 34. His brother, Kyle, fed him that night because ALS has robbed Steve of the ability to completely control his muscle movements. No one knows for sure if a life in football caused the ALS that ravages Gleason now, but at least one study has made a direct link between ALS and the hard hits of football, and Gleason has his suspicions. As do I.
I found myself thinking about this scene over the weekend, with the news that the Saints of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, two years after Gleason left the team, began paying defensive players bounties to knock opponents out of games, and for making difference-making plays.
Steve Gleason is around this team a lot these days. He has talked to the players. The Saints have rallied around this warrior who, very possibly, is now paying the price of his future for hitting people so hard when he played. And I thought of Gleason because the game of football is vicious enough with the legal hits Gleason made sprinting downfield on special teams. Imagine players tempted by a cash bonus to be even more vicious, to knock important foes like Kurt Warner and Brett Favre out of games.
This does such a shameful disservice to Steve Gleason that I almost puke thinking about it.
I keep coming back, over and over, to something I first reported Friday evening, something I saw in a confidential four-page memo sent to the 32 teams (and obtained from one of those teams) late Friday, detailing the abuses.
"At times, players both pledged significant amounts and targeted particular players,'' the memo said. "For example, prior to a Saints playoff game in January 2010, defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Favre out of the game.''
Anyone who thinks the Saints defense didn't go over the line to try to do just that wasn't watching the game -- and didn't see the three plays I reviewed over the weekend. Early in the game, Favre handed off to Percy Harvin, and after the handoff -- a handoff, mind you, a running play -- defensive lineman Bobby McCray ran at Favre and hit him flush in the chin. That brought a 15-yard unnecessary roughness flag from referee Pete Morelli and a fine from the league five days later.
In the third quarter, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove got 15 yards for pile-driving Favre into the ground after a pass. Four plays later, Morelli missed an egregious high-low hit from McCray and tackle Remi Ayodele; maybe Morelli figured he'd just flagged Hargrove and he couldn't throw a flag every time Favre got mugged. "I thought my ankle was broken after that play,'' Favre told me after the game. "I felt a lot of crunching in there.''
That week, McCray got fined a total of $20,000 for two hits -- the hit on Favre's chin and the hit below his knees after he'd released the pass. Hargrove got $5,000 for slamming Favre to the ground.
There are many reasons Roger Goodell has to act decisively here, but I keep coming back to leader-of-the-pack Vilma speaking up in a team meeting, with, I'm assuming, his teammates already at a fever pitch for the biggest game of their lives, and Vilma throwing $10,000 out there if one of them would knock Favre out. By a concussion from nailing him in the chin after a handoff? Fine. From a bruised kidney after pile-driving him into the ground? Fine. With a torn ACL from diving at his exposed knee and lower leg? Fine. Whatever. Just get him out of the game.
No one's na´ve enough to suggest the Saints are alone here, or that Gregg Williams-led teams are the only ones to practice this act. I don't doubt other teams in full desperado mode have had and still have bounty systems in place. But it's like doing 72 in a 60-mph zone and seeing other cars zip past you, and having the cop pull you over. Officer, what about the cars passing me! They're speeding faster than I was! True. But you're guilty. And you're the one that got pulled over.
There's a reason why one prominent football official I spoke with over the weekend said to me, "The league finally got one. This is one of those stories you always hear about -- teams giving bonuses to knock players out of the game and, really, to circumvent the salary cap with these bounties. Now there's no way any coach with half a brain will allow this to go on in his building ... assuming Roger will be tough enough here.''
I've heard the nutty the-league-has-it-out-for-the-Saints theories over the weekend -- Goodell wants to put cocky Sean Payton in his place, the league wants to corral a team playing by its own rules. Nonsense. Goodell brought the hammer down on one of his closest league allies, Bob Kraft of the Patriots, four years ago in Spygate. Goodell, on many occasions, has brought the hammer down on his single closest league ally, Dan Rooney of the Steelers, by a steady stream of fines for excessive hits by Steeler players.
Fair or unfair, whether everyone does it or not, the Saints got caught urging their players to hurt players on other teams -- and paying them through a players' slush fund to try to do it. It's beyond reprehensible. If Goodell doesn't come down very hard, just what will he come down hard on?
Goodell has a few reasons to issue a string of suspensions the likes of which the league has never seen. (Don't think Spygate sanctions here, folks. Think Alex Karras-Paul Hornung sanctions. The Patriots got fines and lost a first-round pick for illegal videotaping. In 1962, Karras and Hornung got a year for gambling.) He has to worry about the message he sends to other teams and make sure they scurry to stop all such off-the-books payment and bounty systems. He has to defend the league against head-trauma-related lawsuits and show that the NFL is aggressively trying to make the game safe. And there's the specter (idiotic, in my opinion) of the 18-game schedule, which only has a chance if somehow the league can prove through safer equipment and maniacal attention to erasing things like bounty programs that more games won't be an overt safety risk to players.
Regarding the penalties: I'm not saying Williams will get a year. He might; I don't know that. But Williams, now the Rams defensive coordinator, is due back in the league office today to address accusations he ran the same kind of bounty programs in Buffalo and Washington. He's in the biggest trouble and will likely get a significant suspension, at least half the season. Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis will be banned for a time too, for not exercising the kind of institutional control they should have.
Vilma is going down, and I suspect other player leaders could be banned for games too. Not that they're all still Saints, but I have to wonder how the league will manage the suspension if, say, six Saints are banned for a game or more. Will Goodell stagger them? Or will the Saints be missing half their defense for Week 1?
If you're a Saints fan today and you're worried about Goodell's discipline, you should be. Recall this Dick Ebersol story from the end of my Goodell profile 13 months ago in SI. The story ran on the eve of the start of serious negotiations between the players and owners last year for a new bargaining agreement.
In 2004, when Ebersol was mourning the loss of his 14-year-old son, Teddy, in a plane crash, Goodell got Paul Tagliabue and then-NFLPA head Gene Upshaw to each fund a suite in the dormitory the Ebersol family had donated to Teddy's private school in Connecticut. Dick Ebersol was overcome with emotion when he toured the dorm and saw little plaques outside the two rooms, side by side, noting the NFL's and NFLPA's generosity. It's a gesture from Goodell the Ebersol family will never forget.
Fast-forward to the 2009 negotiations for a two-year extension, through 2013, to NBC's contract with the NFL. The NFL, according to Ebersol, was stuck on a rights fee of $600 million year for the 2012 and 2013 seasons, though NBC wasn't getting a Super Bowl in either season. Ebersol and Goodell had a few back-and-forth discussions, and Goodell finally said the NFL wouldn't accept a dime less. "There was a coldness and a 'that's it' kind of tone in Roger's voice that was chilling,'' Ebersol said.
"At his heart,'' said Ebersol, "Roger can be a cold son of a bitch. I think the people on the other side of the negotiating table are going to hear that in the coming months. This really nice man is going to show mettle, and he's going to do what he thinks is best for the National Football League. It's what he's always done.''
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