Sean Payton, one of the ringleaders of the New Orleans Saints’ now-exposed bounty system, is subject to a one-year suspension beginning April 1.
But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Monday the disgraced head coach is free to seek other employment during his ban, can help secure an interim replacement outside the team — as long as the Rooney Rule is applied — and is welcome to appeal his suspension and remain on the job while that appeal is heard.
Make no mistake, though: Goodell is furious with Payton, as well as former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis, for not being honest with the NFL while the league was conducting its lengthy investigation into the team-sanctioned bounty program, funded primarily by players, over the past three seasons.
“When this first was raised over two years ago, there were denials. They frankly were not forthright with what was happening,” said Goodell, speaking at the NFL owners meetings in Florida. “And that continued. It continued even through our investigation into the past several weeks.
“So it is a serious violation of our policy. It has zero tolerance in the NFL. And it is not acceptable to hide from the issue, continue to violate NFL policy and put players at risk. That is going to be dealt with very harshly.”
The NFL’s investigation into the pay-for-pain incentive program slammed the Saints with a multiple suspensions: indefinite for Williams, now the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams; one year for Payton; eight games for Loomis beginning Week 1 of the regular season; six games for Vitt; along with a $500,000 fine for the club and the loss of second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
The investigation found that Williams ran the program and contributed funds to it, and it cited Payton and Loomis as enablers who failed to stop the program once they learned of it.
The initial report said the NFL found no other evidence that other bounty programs existed on Williams-coached teams, but Goodell emphasized Monday that the league’s investigation is not complete and that more punishments could be coming.
The 22 to 27 Saints players the report found to have participated in the bounty scheme — among them middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the only player publicly identified in the investigation after the league concluded he offered $10,000 for a takeout on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC title game — will not be disciplined until Goodell meets with NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith.
“I would like to do (mete player punishments) as soon as it’s reasonable,” Goodell said, “but specific to De’, I said I would like to get a recommendation from the players. We have shared our confidential reports with him.”
The NFLPA meetings in Marco Island, Fla. are expected to conclude this week, after which Smith is expected to meet with Goodell regarding player sanctions or suspensions. The commissioner said any suspensions might be staggered.
While Payton has been a no-show in Palm Beach — “He is welcome to attend the meetings,” Goodell clarified — the coach has been making plenty of news away from the owners’ view.
FOXSports NFL insider Jay Glazer confirmed Payton plans to meet with Bill Parcells, 70, this week to see if his mentor wants to become the Saints’ interim head coach for the 2012 season. Parcells would hold the interim position while Payton serves his year-long NFL suspension for his involvement in the bounty scandal.
Goodell said any Saints’ coaching decision is up to the Saints, not the NFL.
“That’s not my decision. That’s a decision that would have to be made by the team,” the commissioner said. “(Payton) is suspended as of April 1. So the Saints are going to have to make that decision about who is going to be hired. That’s their decision.”
There cannot be a straightforward handoff to a Payton-selected replacement: Goodell confirmed that any Saints coaching hire outside of the organization would be subject to the Rooney Rule requiring NFL teams to interview minority candidates for any head coaching job, even an interim position.
Goodell was specific about what the suspended coaches and general manager can and cannot do during their time away from the Saints, but he did say it was up to team owner Tom Benson to determine whether each could seek outside employment.
“They’re suspended from their duties. They won’t be allowed into the training facility during that suspension. I do not expect them to have contact with the team, but I will also have to be reasonable about that,” Goodell said. “But you won’t be coaching from home.”
If Payton decides to appeal his suspension — Goodell said he already has met twice with the coach — he will be permitted to remain on the job while that appeal is heard.
“I said to them in their letter that they would have to appeal by April 2,” Goodell said, “and if he decides to appeal, I would probably allow him to continue. But I would expedite any hearing and expedite my decision, of course.”
Benson, the only Saints’ representation at these meetings, appeared before his fellow owners on Monday and apologized for his team’s actions.
“He was very open with the clubs,” Goodell said. “He expressed disappointment that this occurred and that it’s not what he is all about. And he expects to take whatever steps necessary to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Other owners expressed support for Goodell’s handling of the Saints’ bounty investigation, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said.
“I think he has the full support of the membership with what his decision was, and he’s in the best position to speak to that,” Kraft said Monday. “I don’t have all the facts.”
Among other topics discussed by Goodell:
The commissioner would not comment further on the salary cap sanctions against the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys. The two teams on Monday filed a formal challenge to the $46 million in total cap charges levied against both clubs for “contract practices” during the uncapped 2010 season.
Comments made by NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp on social media and on-air describing former Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey as the “snitch” who exposed the Saints’ bounty system won’t be specifically addressed by the league office, Goodell said — even though Sapp is an employee of the league-owned television network.“First off, you’re assuming (the whistleblower) was a player, correct?” Goodell asked. “We have several sources on this.
“I didn’t see (Sapp’s comment), but he’s inaccurate. Let’s start with that.”
The cross-ownership conflict that could occur if St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke — among the three finalists in the bidding for the Los Angeles Dodgers — emerges as MLB’s winner is very real, Goodell said, and will have to be addressed.
The reason: The NFL considers Los Angeles to be an NFL market, despite the fact no team has played there since the Raiders left for Oakland in 1995.
“Yes, it would raise cross-ownership questions,” the commissioner said.