There is no way to defend Gregg Williams now, no way to hear those words on tape and not acknowledge that the former defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints crossed lines in ways that not only deserved, but demanded significant punishment.
Whatever you thought of Bountygate before — and the notion that everyone in the NFL operates this way has been a persistent undercurrent in all this — the release of Williams’ speech from the night before a January playoff game against the 49ers should end any argument that the either the Saints or Williams have been treated unfairly here.
Many of Williams’ instructions fall somewhere between harmless metaphor and cheap theatrics, and if only he had stopped there, the tape — released by a documentary filmmaker who was granted significant access to the Saints last season — wouldn’t be a fraction as damning.
But a coach in the NFL cannot tell his players to “find out in the first two series of the game … about his concussion,” a reference to 49ers receiver Kyle Williams. He can’t tell them to “take out that outside ACL,” in his scouting report on receiver Michael Crabtree. And he certainly can’t suggest a payday — “I got the first one,” Williams says in the tape, while allegedly making the cash signal with his fingers — while talking about putting head shots on quarterback Alex Smith.
So in that sense, it’s good that the veil has been lifted completely on the viciousness and illegality of the bounty system Gregg Williams ran with the Saints. We now can see it exactly for what it was, and it was disgusting. He should never coach in the NFL again.
But the release of this tape Thursday, via Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports, might have a consequence that serves the NFL’s interests far more than any notion of improving player safety. Because the more we learn about Bountygate, the more heat gets directed toward Williams and Saints coach Sean Payton and the less the NFL has to acknowledge the possibility this might be a cultural issue on a much larger scale.
Clearly Gregg Williams’ methods were way out of control, and the degrees and methods may be different, but the former Saints defensive coordinator may not be as much of a rogue as the NFL wants you to believe.
See, it was only a couple weeks later, after the Giants beat the 49ers in the NFC championship game, that two of their defensive players also referenced Kyle Williams’ concussion history.
“He’s had a lot of concussions,” Devin Thomas told the Newark Star-Ledger. “We were just like, ‘We gotta put a hit on that guy. (Tyler) Sash did a great job hitting him early, and he looked kind of dazed when he got up. I feel like that made a difference and he coughed it up.”
Said linebacker Jacquian Williams: “The thing is, we knew he had four concussions, so that was our biggest thing, to take him out of the game.”
This didn’t get much attention during Super Bowl week, and in fact when I asked general manager Jerry Reese about it, he smugly dismissed my question as “so oversensationalized.” Had the Bountygate story been public at that time, I suspect Reese’s reaction might have been slightly different.
Or maybe not.
Because the worse this gets for Gregg Williams and the Saints — and it’s hard to imagine it getting worse than this — the more the NFL can claim that they had a franchise operating on the margins and dealt with it in a swift and serious manner.
Given that the NFL is fighting a slew of lawsuits from former players alleging negligence by the league in dealing with concussions and their long-term impact, it’s a predictable strategy. Remember, no reporter broke this story. The NFL chose to make its investigation public, allowing commissioner Roger Goodell to make a strong stand by suspending Williams indefinitely and Payton for the entire 2012 season.
Every step of this has been orchestrated, every detail intended to paint the Saints as a renegade organization with a locker room culture run amok and Goodell as the grown-up who wants to take this whole violence thing seriously.
But understand, this completely benefits Goodell and costs him nothing. After he announced the Saints’ penalties, which are significant by any measure, there was a chorus quick to compare them to the fluffy sentences NCAA violators often get. The difference is, the NCAA can never discipline its star coaches or programs too severely because it would affect the bottom line. Take Ohio State off television for a year or two and see how much money the Big Ten loses. The NCAA has no desire to get involved in something like that.
The NFL can be harsh here because it doesn’t affect business at all. If anything, it makes the Saints even more of an attraction this year. Meanwhile, when Goodell gets dragged into the courtroom or perhaps in front of Congress to testify that, yes, the NFL takes its concussions seriously, he’s got a wonderful audio clip to show the kind of stuff that gets you banned from coaching football.
But the NFL was, is and will always be a violent league whose mass appeal is based largely on violence. I suspect that few have ever taken it as far as Williams, but is there that big of a gulf between what he said on that tape about the 49ers and what the Giants players said publicly a couple weeks later?
We’ll probably never know. If it’s up to the NFL, we’ll never have to.