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March 12, 2012
For three years, the NFL says, members of the Saints defense maintained an illicit bounty program, administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, that paid cash rewards for hits that injured opponents. Expect the league's punishment to be swift and severe
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March 12, 2012

Way Out Of Bounds

For three years, the NFL says, members of the Saints defense maintained an illicit bounty program, administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, that paid cash rewards for hits that injured opponents. Expect the league's punishment to be swift and severe

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"This is a seminal moment in the culture change we have to make," said the source close to Goodell, who asked to not be identified because the investigation is ongoing. "This has to stop now. Every team needs to hear the message that we're in a different era now, where this appalling behavior is going to end."

Last Friday, Williams admitted culpability in the scheme and apologized for it. "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it," he said in a statement. "Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it." Saints owner Tom Benson said he had fully cooperated in the investigation and admitted that the league's findings "may be troubling." It appeared as of Monday that New Orleans was distancing itself from Williams, who in January left to become the Rams' defensive coordinator, and that if Saints staffers spoke out, it would be to paint Williams, who declined to speak to SI, as a rogue coach who didn't have the support of Payton or Loomis. But would the NFL believe that a micromanager such as Payton didn't know what was going on with one of his coordinators and half of his team on the nights before games? "Reminds me of the Nixon White House," said another league source involved in the investigation.

As with Watergate, this scandal almost died in the early stages for lack of proof. According to a confidential league memo sent to the 32 teams late on Friday, Vikings officials alleged to the league following that January 2010 NFC title game that the Saints had put a bounty on Favre. Minnesota officials also said they had information that New Orleans had a bounty on Warner a week earlier. The NFL memo said Williams, Hargrove and assistant head coach/linebackers Joe Vitt all denied that any such activity took place that postseason. The league said two NFL investigators told Loomis at the time to ensure there was no bounty program in place and that Loomis "pledged to take care of it."

The investigation was dry-docked at that point, but during the latter part of the 2011 season the league said it received "significant and credible new information" that the bounty program did exist in 2009 and continued through '11. Before the Saints' January 2012 playoff game against the Lions, the league informed Benson of the renewed investigation. At that point the owner allowed NFL officials and outside forensic experts to gather evidence, including copious club e-mails, related to the bounty program. Benson also told the league he would contact Loomis to make sure the program wasn't in place.

The NFL said it examined 18,000 documents totaling some 50,000 pages. One of those was an e-mail from a former team consultant, Mike Ornstein, to Payton, allegedly pledging $5,000 toward a bounty on an opposing quarterback. A source said Ornstein—at one time a close confidant of Payton's who in October 2010 would plead guilty to federal fraud and money-laundering charges in connection with the scalping of Super Bowl tickets and the sale of bogus game-worn NFL jerseys—claimed he was kidding about the pledge, but the league took it seriously.

When the investigation was complete in mid-February, Goodell summoned Williams to his office. Confronted with evidence that implicated him as the ringleader in the scandal, Williams at first denied any involvement but shortly thereafter met with Goodell and admitted his role.

The new investigation concluded that Loomis "took no effective action to ensure that these practices ceased" and that Payton knew about the bounty program, though he wasn't in the meetings where bounties were discussed. Last Thursday, Loomis and Payton flew to New York to meet individually with Joe Hummel, the NFL's director of investigations, and Jeff Miller, its lead security officer. Faced with the weight of evidence, one league source said, Loomis admitted he could have done more and that he "let Mr. Benson down."

According to the source, Payton refused to admit he knew much of what Williams was doing. Confronted with the e-mail from Ornstein, Payton expressed surprise and said he hadn't read the e-mail.

There is a win-at-all-costs side to Gregg Williams, a fiery 53-year-old who's fond of telling his troops, "Kill the head and the body will die." Since the NFL's announcement on Friday, allegations have surfaced of pay-for-performance programs at at least two of Williams's previous stops. Former Bills safety Coy Wire told The Buffalo News there was one in Buffalo, where Williams was the head coach from 2001 to '03. Ditto in Washington, where Williams served as defensive coordinator from 2004 to '07; there, former Redskins safety Matt Bowen said in a Chicago Tribune column, bounty prices were set on Saturday nights. "We targeted big names, our sights set on taking them out of the game," Bowen wrote.

Then there's the Williams who along with wife, Leigh Ann, stressed the value of education, insisting that their three children read 30 minutes each night before going to bed. Williams ran charity events in his hometown of Excelsior Springs, Mo., that benefited athletic and academic causes alike. He raised money to found an Excelsior High robotics team and to send the drama club to Scotland.

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