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Does Saints' punishment fit the crime?
Roger Goodell is damn serious about player safety, and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton paid the price Wednesday.
Payton was suspended for the 2012 season for his role in Bountygate. His coaching staff and players pooled money and awarded payments to players for either hurting or knocking an opponent from a game.
Current Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who promoted and monitored a bounty system in Buffalo, Washington and apparently enhanced it with the Saints, was indefinitely suspended.
Payton, who could lose $7 million in salary this season, won’t be able to have any contact with his players. The Saints were also fined $500,000 and lost two second-round draft choices, one this year and the other in 2013. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games, meaning he can’t go to work for the first two months of the season.
Amazingly, this is also the first time that a team that wasn’t involved — the St. Louis Rams — are being punished, with the loss of Williams. And at this late date, it will be impossible for Rams coach Jeff Fisher to replace Williams, his good friend. It means that Fisher and assistant head coach Dave McGinnis will have to coach and manage the Rams' defense in Williams' absence.
Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reported Payton is shocked by his suspension.
You can bet that the onslaught of concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL was a factor in Goodell’s serious stance against the Saints. The NFL has been trying to outlaw cheap shots to defenseless players, something that was a mainstay with the Saints during their Super Bowl run at the end of the 2009 season. During the playoffs that year, they virtually ended the career of Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner (concussion) and also battered Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC Championship Game.
The Saints' pursuit of Favre was so relentless in the NFC Championship Game that the Vikings accused referee Pete Morelli of swallowing his whistle because he could have called roughing penalties on so many pass plays. Favre was even decked after handing off to Adrian Peterson. In a crucial third-quarter interception, Saints defensive end Bobby McCray hit Favre below the knees. Had Morelli correctly called a penalty, the interception would have been negated.
The word is that Payton and Williams in their meetings with Goodell were not repentant enough for the commissioner’s liking while insisting that a bounty system is common among NFL teams.
And there is some truth to that, but never have I heard of a player (Jonathan Vilma) offering a $10,000 reward to any of his teammates knocking a player (Favre) out of a game. Generally, so-called bounty pots among defensive players amounted to, maybe, a $100 or $200 a player. Also, defensive players have been known to reward teammates for big, clean hits on opponents after games. But many of those tend to go to special teams’ players.
When Payton was injured last season in a sideline incident, linebackers coach Joe Vitt took over control of the Saints. But Vitt drew a six-game suspension from the league on Wednesday.
Payton hired former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo to replace Williams as defensive coordinator. He and Pete Carmichael, who called the offensive plays for Drew Brees last season, will be candidates to replace Payton this season.
Mike Ornstein, who was released from federal prison last year after serving time for ticket scalping and illegal sales of NFL merchandise, reportedly had an involvement in the bounty system and was interviewed by the league. Ornstein is a close friend of both Payton and Loomis.
Until today, Goodell’s largest franchise-coach fine was given to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in 2007 for Spygate when the team admitted to videotaping New York Jets’ coaches in order to decipher their defensive signals. Belichick, one of the game’s highest-paid coaches and also one of its very best, was fined $500,000 while the Patriots lost a first-round draft choice and were fined $250,000.
Although the Patriots were caught in a specific game against the Jets, there were rumors for years that Belichick employed sideline cameramen to tape the opposing coaching staff in order to capture their signals to on-field players. The Packers removed a Patriots cameramen from the sidelines in a 2006 game against New England.
Since becoming commissioner in 2006, Goodell has acted like a new sheriff in town, particularly with players who have had multiple infractions of the league’s personal conduct policy. Goodell’s moral compass is very stringent. Pacman Jones, a former first-round draft choice who played last season for the Bengals, received a one-year suspension (2007) after 10 separate off-the-field incidents, the final one occurring at a Las Vegas strip club during the NBA All-Star weekend when a member of his entourage was involved in a shooting that left a man paralyzed. Pacman was also accused of tossing money around like it was confetti.
Browns receiver Donte Stallworth was also suspended for the 2009 season after pleading guilty to a DUI vehicular manslaughter charge in Miami that caused the death of Mario Reyes on March 14 of that year. Stallworth, who had been celebrating Cleveland’s payment of a $4.5 million bonus, failed to play at an elite level after his return and was released last season by the Redskins.
When Steelers Nation was embarrassed by the sexual misconduct accusations against its star quarterback, Goodell stepped in and suspended Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger for six games (reduced to four) at the start of the 2010 season after two separate incidents. Roethlisberger, however, was never charged by police in either incident.
Like Williams, Michael Vick initially lied to Goodell about his involvement in dog fighting and subsequent deaths of many of his dogs. Vick was indefinitely suspended after admitting his guilt in federal court and missed two seasons (2007-08) while in prison. Vick, however, was allowed to attend Philadelphia Eagles’ training camp in 2009 and was suspended for the first four games of that season. Vick was in debt when he went into prison, but the Eagles rewarded him with a $100 million contract last summer, and he is a wealthy man once again although his image remains tainted by his dog-killing past.
When pro football was gaining in popularity in the 1960s, legendary commissioner Pete Rozelle was extremely focused on the integrity of the game, especially knowing that two New York Giants players were suspended trying to fix the 1946 championship game. Salaries were so low in the sport, especially before the advent of television, that there was always the threat that a player or players could earn more betting or fixing a game.
Consequently, when Rozelle learned that Packers MVP running back Paul Hornung and also Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras were caught betting on NFL games, both players were suspended for the entire 1963 season. Later, Rozelle told Joe Namath that he had to divest his interest in a popular Manhattan nightclub, Bachelors III, merely because known gamblers and mobsters frequented the bar. Namath, who would eventually led the Jets to a Super Bowl upset of the Baltimore Colts, initially retired from the game rather than abide by Rozelle’s decision. Fortunately for the Jets, Namath changed his mind and sold his stake in Bachelors III, which was planning to expand at the time to Miami and Los Angeles.
Paul Tagliabue, Rozelle’s successor, handed down the NFL’s biggest suspension to a team owner when he forced 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. to sit out the 1999 season and fined him $1 million for his involvement in a gambling-extortion case in Louisiana. DeBartolo agreed to pay $400,000 former Gov. Edwin Edwards to secure a legal gambling license in the Louisiana. Although DeBartolo today is cleared to be involved in the NFL, Tagliabue’s ruling led to him to relinquish his interest in the 49ers and open the door for his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, to take over the franchise.
To prove that Hall of Fame selectors can look the other way, DeBartolo was an finalist for the Hall of Fame this year and Hornung was voted into the Hall in 1986.
But the Saints' suspensions and fines could effectively ruin the team's 2012 season. The Saints still must negotiate a contract with quarterback Drew Brees. Payton, along with Belichick, Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy, is considered one of the NFL’s best head coaches, and he is one its brightest offensive minds. Many with the New York Giants, who won this year’s Super Bowl, believed the Saints were the best team in the NFL last season and felt fortunate they didn’t have to meet them in the playoffs.
And what these suspensions and fines also mean is that the game could be played differently on the field in future seasons. It could put an end to cheap shots and also cheap talk on the field of play. Football is an emotional game and it is a physical game, but Goodell also wants a clean game, a fair game.
The penalties may have been too severe for a coach like Payton, but Goodell’s actions undoubtedly put coaches and players on notice that they better alter their on-field approach to border-line violence.