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WAY OUT OF BOUNDS
PETER KING
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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But Williams was most driven to coach football. He once worked under the attack-minded Buddy Ryan with the Oilers, and he preaches a similarly physical, punishing style predicated on blitzing and turnovers. To entice him to come to New Orleans in 2009 to improve a D that had ranked 23rd the previous year, Payton personally paid $250,000 of Williams's first-year salary—enough to ensure that the Saints beat out Green Bay for his services. And Williams's driven ways worked: While the defense's overall ranking didn't improve in '09, New Orleans went from tied for 20th in takeaways to second.

Along the way Williams inspired a loyalty among his players that recalled the Bears' devotion to Ryan in the '80s. And Payton was confident enough in him that he ceded control of the defense's preparations to Williams, instead spending his Saturday nights working on the offensive play script. It's wrong, though, to say that Williams ran the pay-for-performance system by himself. One player who was in those Saturday defensive meetings says the energy among the players sometimes built to such a height that he was surprised to hear the words that came out of his own mouth. Another source said that linebacker Scott Fujita and two other defensive leaders contributed between $2,000 and $10,000 to the performance and bounty pool. Williams preached intense team play, and the players relished their roles as funders and benefactors.

On Sunday, Fujita said, "Over the years I've paid out a lot of money for big plays like interceptions, sacks and special teams tackles inside the 20. But I've never made a payment for intentionally injuring another player." Fujita said he didn't think he ever put money into a collective pot; rather when a teammate made a play, Fujita handed him the money he'd promised.

Fujita's name in the investigation is noteworthy. After signing with the Browns as a free agent a month after the Super Bowl win, he accepted a nomination to the NFL Players Association's executive board. During the 2011 negotiations on the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement, he and former Cardinals and Steelers special teams star Sean Morey pushed hard for improvements in working conditions, including fewer full-contact practices during the season. It was Fujita's emphasis on health care for former players who have debilitating illnesses, such as close friend and former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who suffers from ALS, that helped persuade the two sides to include lifetime care for ex-players with that disease. It's hard to reconcile Fujita's being part of the problem in 2009 and part of the solution in 2011.

"You don't spend time with guys like Sean Morey and other former players, or have close friends whose health fails them, possibly because of this game, and not be affected by that," Fujita said. "I wanted to be part of the paradigm shift."

It is likely Goodell will come down hardest on Williams, Payton, Loomis and Vilma, in that order. Williams oversaw the program in New Orleans and may have run similar ones in previous coaching stops. He might have mitigated his punishment with his contrition, but he should expect a significant suspension, perhaps half a season or more.

Payton and Loomis may be equally at fault in the eyes of the league. The confidential memo to owners last week said that Payton "failed to stop the bounty program" by not exercising proper institutional control. The league had particularly harsh words for Loomis: "He failed to ensure that the club, and the coaching staff he supervised, conducted themselves in a way consistent with league rules, and further failed to carry out the express instructions of the club's owner." The Saints may have to do without Payton and Loomis for four games or more in 2012. As for the players, Vilma seems likely to get a multigame ban. Benson personally appears to be in the clear—"There is no evidence to suggest that Saints ownership had any knowledge of the bounty program," the league memo said—but the franchise will almost certainly face penalties including a heavy fine and loss of one or more draft choices. That would be problematic for the Saints, who traded their 2012 first-round pick last year to the Patriots and don't make a selection until No. 59. Goodell could take that pick, or wait until 2013 to dock New Orleans a first-rounder. Or he could do both.

Far away from the furor, the object of much of that January 2010 mayhem didn't seem particularly ruffled. Reached on his 465-acre ranch just west of Hattiesburg, Miss., on Friday, Favre told SI, "Since that game, I haven't gone a week without someone asking me whether I thought there was a bounty on me that day. Now it's come out to be true. But it's football. I'm not going to make a big deal of it." The commissioner will.

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