The NFL on Wednesday levied one of the harshest penalties in league history in punishing the New Orleans Saints for running an illegal bounty system targeting opposing offense players.
The NFL disciplined multiple members of the Saints organization for their participation or connection with the bounty system that was run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-11. Williams was suspended indefinitely. Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season. General manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games and linebackers/assistant head coach Joe Vitt for the first six.
In addition, the Saints were fined $500,000 and stripped of second-round draft choices in the 2012 and 2013 drafts. The Saints already didn’t have a first-round pick in the draft this April because they dealt it to New England last year for the chance to select running back Mark Ingram.
The Saints, as well as those suspended, can appeal the ruling to the NFL.
New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said he was "speechless" about the NFL’s ruling and wants to know the reasoning behind it.
"I am speechless," Brees tweeted. "Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this punishment."
The NFL claims Payton and Loomis had knowledge of the bounty system run by Williams but failed to take steps to stop them.
FOXSports.com NFL insider Jay Glazer said the Saints initially planned to name Vitt as their interim head coach in case of a Payton suspension. That plan will now be reassessed in light of the Vitt suspension.
The penalties are the most severe and wide-ranging against a team since NFL commissioner Roger Goodell disciplined the New England Patriots for the “Spygate” scandal of 2007.
In early March, the NFL announced findings of a lengthy investigation that revealed activities strictly barred by the league. Saints players and others within the franchise including Williams contributed to a bounty pool that reached as much as $50,000.
Players were rewarded $1,500 for what were described as “knockout” hits and $1,000 for “cart-offs” (i.e. an injured opponent being taken off the field on a medical cart). The payoff amounts were doubled or tripled during the postseason.
Sports Illustrated first reported that Saints linebacker Jon Vilma offered a $10,000 reward to any teammate who could drive Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC championship game in January 2010. Favre played the entire game but was the victim of numerous borderline hits, including a high-low shot by defensive linemen Bobby McCray and Remi Ayodele that caused a serious ankle injury. Defensive end Anthony Hargrove also was flagged and fined by the NFL for a late hit on Favre.
The bounty system flies in the face of the player safety initiatives Goodell has instituted during his six-year tenure as NFL commissioner.
“It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game,” Goodell said in a statement released earlier this month. “This type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.”
The NFL initially began investigating the Saints in the fall of 2010 when allegations were made that New Orleans players were targeting Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner during an early season matchup. Initially unable to prove a bounty system existed, the NFL reopened its inquiry after new information surfaced during the 2011 season. The final report measured 50,000 pages with internal Saints emails part of the 18,000 documents submitted.
When news of the scandal surfaced, players on other teams coached by Williams admitted that similar bounty programs existed to varying degrees. Williams left the Saints at the end of the 2011 season to become defensive coordinator in St. Louis. The Rams have taken no official action against Williams while awaiting the NFL’s announcement of sanctions.
An NFL coach since 1990 at levels ranging from defensive assistant to Buffalo Bills head coach (2001-03), Williams was not forthcoming when NFL investigators questioned him about the existence of the bounty program.