Saints defensive tackle Tom Johnson launched a passionate defense of Sean Payton, describing the head coach’s league-imposed yearlong ban for his part in the bounty program scandal as "not right."
"We knew there would be some type [of punishment], but not this," Johnson told the Sun Herald.
The Super Bowl-winning coach was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2012 season without pay Wednesday.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suggested Payton’s penalty was heightened by his apparent attempts to disguise the practice, in which defensive players received cash bonuses for injuring opponents, when the league made inquiries.
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis also received an eight-game suspension, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was hit with a six-game ban, while the team was ordered to pay a $500,000 fine and surrender a second-round draft pick in both 2012 and 2013.
Johnson said he was stunned by the scale of Payton’s punishment.
"My agent called [to report the news] when I was getting gas, and I immediately hung up," Johnson said. "Man, he got a whole year. That is hard to believe. I am shocked, and no one on the team was expecting it to be so harsh. I am at a loss for words."
He added, "We didn’t think anything like this because of the type of man he is. He is our leader and the man we respect. It is going to be hard to move forward without Sean Payton for any amount of time, especially a year."
The punishments meted out to the Saints amounted to the most severe set of penalties issued by the NFL against one of its teams to date.
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams — the brainchild of the controversial bounty scheme, who is now with the Rams — was suspended indefinitely.