Posted: Monday March 26, 2012 8:33AM ; Updated: Monday March 26, 2012 10:29AM
Peter King
Peter King>MONDAY MORNING QB

Bounty saga still dominating league landscape at owners meetings

Story Highlights

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Sean Payton
The Saints still haven't announced who will take over coaching duties from Sean Payton this season.
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PALM BEACH, Fla. -- New Orleans coach Sean Payton arrives at the NFL owners meetings this morning, with only seven days left in his 2012 season. Starting next Monday, Payton will begin his year-long suspension for looking the other way and, commissioner Roger Goodell ruled last week, tacitly approving the out-of-bounds bounty scandal and then misleading the league about it.

I'm told Payton is thinking of speaking to owners and coaches here, and he's undecided about it. But if he does, it won't be to blast the ruling, which he feels is patently excessive. If he speaks, I'm told it will be to say something like, This will never happen again, I'm going to be a good league employee, and let's move on united behind the leadership of the league.

I've also heard conflicting stories about whether he'll appeal the year sanction from Goodell and try to get it reduced. That may come in the form of GM Mickey Loomis trying to convince the league it is he -- Loomis -- who should be punished the most severely because he is ultimately responsible for what happens under his watch. I don't think that has much of a chance, because of the power Payton wields in the organization. But it's at least being considered. Payton has until next Monday, the same as every person sanctioned in the bounty case, to decide whether to appeal the penalty.

Frankly, I don't think appealing would do any good. I spoke with league counsel Jeff Pash here Sunday. Goodell makes the final call on all sanctions, and Pash is his trusted adviser. People I talk to in the league are split on the discipline. Most like it. They like Goodell drawing a line in the sand and point to decisive, iron-fisted action like that as the reason why the NFL will stay on top of the sports world. But some feel Goodell's year sanction of Payton was over the top. I share that feeling, I thought eight games would have been fair. I understand why Goodell did it. He wanted to lay down the law so that, unequivocally, no coach or player would ever be tempted to put a bounty out on a foe again, ever. My feeling is it could have happened with an eight-game ban for the head coach.

"I would respond to that this way,'' Pash said. "The commissioner has been clear from day one that he wants to change the culture of the game. He wants to eliminate the gratuitous hits, and eliminate any excessive violence that has no place in the game. If accomplishing that includes harsh penalties that some people feel are excessive, then so be it. We are comfortable with the sanctions.''

Pash also said the NFL has no current evidence to show other teams have violated the bounty or pay-for-performance rules on the books. "If we found evidence of the same clarity that we found in the New Orleans case, we would take action,'' he said. "We have looked into some allegations. But as you know, allegations and accusations are not proof.''

One final point on the league's work on the Saints case: League investigators first talked to the Saints not after the Super Bowl two years ago, as had been thought -- but between the NFC Championship Game (in which Jonathan Vilma is alleged to have put a $10,000 cash bounty out on Brett Favre) and the Super Bowl against Indianapolis.

***

Now about the "S'' word.

Pash refused to compare this scandal to the Spygate affair in 2007. I believe that by any measure this bounty scandal is more serious and worse for football than Spygate, which involved surreptitious taping of opponents' defensive signals, and using those tapings to gain an unfair edge in figuring out what plays the opponents would call. The bounty business involves violations of the salary cap and tax code by paying players a cash bonus off the book, and, more seriously according to the NFL's case against the Saints, involves players being incentivized to knock foes out of the game. That can't be tolerated in any form. I think we'd all agree with that.

But here is the game-suspension scoreboard in the two cases this morning: Saints Bounty Scandal 46, Spygate 0.

Gregg Williams 16 (maybe more), Sean Payton 16, Mickey Loomis eight, Joe Vitt six.

Bill Belichick 0.

And it will end up being much more lopsided. It's hard to imagine that a multi-game suspension (eight?) isn't coming for Jonathan Vilma, who is alleged to have offered mates $10,000 in cash to knock Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in January 2010. There may be other defensive players who, like Vilma, led the charge. I believe there will be more. At the end of this, the suspensions for Saints players, coaches and staff will likely approach 60 games. Or more.

There are more people involved in this case -- coaches, staff, players -- than in Spygate. So the penalty is going to seem more severe. But two high draft choices, and 46 games, with more to come, is one heck of a message to send.

Finally: I don't believe for a second this is a case of Roger Goodell protecting his pal Bob Kraft (you do a friend a favor by taking a first-round draft pick from him?) and coming down hard on Tom Benson. It's a case of laying down the gauntlet to the Saints, and to any other team foolish enough to keep any such system in place, that Goodell is going to have no tolerance.

***

Looks like Gregg Williams has a road map back to football a year from now.

In his letter to Williams informing him of the sanctions, Goodell has given Williams a clear path how to get reinstated in 2013. The commissioner wrote thusly to Williams on Wednesday: "I will review your status at the conclusion of the 2012 season and consider whether, and if so, on what terms, you may be reinstated and again eligible to be employed in the NFL. In making this decision, I will give considerable weight to the extent to which you cooperate with my office in any further proceedings, as well as developing and implementing programs designed to teach players and coaches -- particularly at other levels of the game -- how to play football in a way that is safe, fair, and that respects the game and those who participate in it ... I appreciate that this decision will be difficult for you. I hope you will use the opportunity to reflect on how you can return to the NFL in a way that honors the game and improves it for those who participate in it.''

Sounds like if Williams makes some come-clean speeches to high school and college football teams around the country at the NFL's behest, he'll be back in the game in 2013 -- assuming the Rams will still employ him. That's likely, but not certain.

Ten Free Agency moves I liked, excluding Peyton Manning

1. CB Tracy Porter from New Orleans to Denver. The other day in Denver, I spoke to John Fox about the supporting cast for Peyton Manning, and one of the things I gently reminded him was his defense allowed 40 points or more in five of 18 games last season. "I know,'' he said. "We plan to do something about that.''

This is a very solid first move, bringing in a better corner than two (Eric Wright, Aaron Ross) who got richer first-week contracts. The only X factor with any former Saint, however, concerns the bounty investigation, and whether any players will be suspended. We don't know whether Porter was involved, and whether he'll face any discipline.

2. QB Alex Smith staying in San Francisco. This was not a phony, visit-Miami-for-leverage ploy by Smith. If the Dolphins had shown him some more first-year money, he very well could have left San Francisco. Good idea that the Niners stepped up, rather than make the quarterback position on a solid Super Bowl contender a Josh Johnson/Colin Kaepernick camp duel.

3. MLB Curtis Lofton from Atlanta to New Orleans. Terrific insurance for the Saints in the event of a significant suspension for Jonathan Vilma in the center of the defense. I don't see how Vilma's not going away for multiple games for his alleged role in the Saints' bounty scandal.

4. DE Mark Anderson from New England to Buffalo. The Bills' defensive line has a tremendously improved look right now. Keep in mind new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt will switch to a 4-3. He'll have Mario Williams at left end and Anderson and Chris Kelsay (and maybe a draft choice) playing the right side, with Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Torell Troupe in the middle. That's the best line in the AFC East.

5. TE Jacob Tamme from Indianapolis to Denver. A Peyton Manning security blanket, obviously. Check out Tamme's catches in the last 10 games of the Colts' season in 2010: 6, 11, 7, 7, 7, 4, 4, 7, 7, 7. Think Manning's happy to have Tamme in the fold?

6. LB Erin Henderson staying in Minnesota. The Vikings' salary cap is very happy with the one-year, $2 million deal Henderson signed, because he outplayed that number in his first full-time starting season last year. Henderson's not that happy, though. Hope the one-year deal doesn't backfire on the Vikes.

7. C Jeff Saturday from Indianapolis to Green Bay. GM Ted Thompson lost Pro Bowler Scott Wells and replaced him with one of the smartest centers and most mature team players in the league. Saturday, by the way, is healthy. Even if the Packers have simply bought time for finding a replacement center a year from now, it's a good move.

8. MLB Steven Tulloch staying in Detroit. Jim Schwartz wanted Tulloch badly because he's exactly the kind of aggressive, sideline-to-sideline playmaker he wants in the nerve center of his defense.

9. DT Brodrick Bunkley from Denver to New Orleans. The deal is pricey -- five years, $25 million -- but the Saints badly wanted a run-stuffer who can move, and the best one left on the market was Bunkley.

10. Special teams player Corey Graham from Chicago to Baltimore. The Ravens spent wisely in buying one of the league's best coverage players for the next two seasons. Graham made the NFC special teams Pro Bowl slot last season and can be a good backup in the secondary.

 
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