The intentions of Gregg Williams-led defenses have been questioned long before last week’s revelations that he allegedly offered bounties as “performance incentives” to injure opposing players.
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While the most recent incidents are focused around Williams’ time as defensive coordinator with the New Orleans Saints, there have been reports that he instituted similar “pay for performance” structures at his previous stops in Washington and Buffalo.
Williams met with NFL security officials in New York on Monday to discuss the burgeoning investigation that could lead to serious sanctions against Williams — who recently was hired as the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams — and possibly his former employers.
FOXSports.com has looked at some questionable hits involving defensive players under Williams’ watch, including those involved in the 2009 NFC title game in which the Saints appeared repeatedly to target Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.
The Vikings, who lost the contest to the eventual Super Bowl champs, actually asked the NFL after the game to review the tape of the game for possible infractions.
“Minnesota asked us to look at every play,” said FOXSports.com analyst Mike Pereira, who was the NFL’s vice president of officiating at the time. “We looked at the total number of hits on Favre, and Minnesota actually sent in a list of plays where they claimed New Orleans was targeting Favre.
“When all was said and done, we didn’t think they were.”
Pereira said the ideas of bounties weren’t even contemplated when he was an on-field official or working in the NFL’s front office. That no longer will be the case, Pereira said, especially when it comes to the extra scrutiny that will be placed on any team Williams is a part of in the future.
“Obviously, with the bounty situation, they are going to watch him very closely,” Pereira said. “They aren’t going to admit they’re doing that, but that’s been part of the league office since Day 1, whether they acknowledge it or not.
“All the Rams tapes will be scrutinized very closely if Williams is involved. I think some free agents may have second thoughts of playing for the Rams because they’re going to be scrutinized more than if they were to go somewhere else.”
Pereira expects the NFL will send a strong message by way of a suspension and fine of Williams.
Despite the focus on Williams, the Saints are only one of several teams that have run afoul of the league’s increasing enforcement of dangerous hits — an important initiative for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in recent years — and New Orleans was hardly the most penalized team in the NFL last season. The Saints’ defense ranked 11th in penalties (109) and penalty yardage (912 yards).
Here’s a breakdown of six notable incidents that received scrutiny under Williams’ watch:
Dec. 11, 2011
Saints 22, Titans 17
Two fines were levied against Saints safety Roman Harper, for actions in a single game no less.
Harper was docked $15,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the first half. (Hasselbeck remained in the game, although he later was forced out with a calf injury.)
The other unnecessary roughness penalty and fine ($7,500) were for violently yanking on the facemask of Titans receiver Nate Washington, a move that likely saved a touchdown.
“Honestly, he’s a dirty player,” Washington told The Tennessean newspaper. “I’ve been watching film on him. He’s dirty. I don’t appreciate it. I’m going to step out in public and say it. It’s unfortunate he grabbed the facemask. But at the same time, you don’t walk over a guy and nudge him with your knee. You don’t do that. That’s dirty. That’s a dirty player. Flat out.”
Despite replays showing the violent nature of the facemask, the Saints’ defensive coordinator appeared to blame the victim.
"If that guy doesn’t want his head tore off, duck,” Williams told The Associated Press. “Because that’s how we’re playing. He needs to duck, OK? And that is exactly what you have to do.
“One of the things about playing in this league is that your mental toughness, your physical toughness, all that kind of stuff works hand-in-hand. And I love Roman Harper and the way he plays, and evidently a lot of other people and players in the league do, too, because they keep on voting him to the Pro Bowl."
Nov. 28, 2011
Saints 49, Giants 24
Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks was blasted twice by Saints defenders, including once as he went across the middle.
Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus flattened Nicks in the third quarter, a collision that drew a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. Nicks slowly made his way to the sideline, where he was diagnosed with bruised ribs.
"I was defenseless; I guess it’s football, he took advantage of it,” Nicks told the New York Post. "He did what he was supposed to do. I wasn’t happy, but it’s football. He got a good shot.”
The league didn’t levy additional penalties on Abdul-Quddus, although Saints defensive back Tracy Porter was fined $7,500 for a late hit that Nicks received while he was out of bounds in the game.
Oct. 9, 2011
Saints 30, Panthers 27
Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith crossed the goal line — maybe a little too slow for the Saints’ liking — for a 54-yard touchdown on a pass from Cam Newton.
What followed was a hard shove from Harper, which drew an unnecessary roughness penalty and, later, a $15,000 fine by the NFL. Not that either punishment seemed to shake Harper.
“My reaction is a smile on my face," Harper told NFL.com after the fine was announced. "That’s all you get out of me. They are in my pocket, what can I say? … It was worth it. The NFL got the point, I got the point."
Smith, who sought out Harper after the collision and was in the middle of a scrum that ensued, said he didn’t expect an apology.
“I’m not looking for one, don’t think I deserve one,” Smith told the Charlotte Observer. “I didn’t lose any sleep over it, won’t lose any sleep over it. And when we play them down there, I’m not going to walk up to him and say, ‘Hey, I expect an apology, or can we make amends?’ It’s football.”
Jan. 24, 2010
NFC title game
Saints 31, Vikings 28
Brad Childress, then the coach of the Vikings, found it odd just how feverishly quarterback Brett Favre was pursued during the title game.
Childress particularly took exception to a hit by Remi Ayodele and Bobby McCray in the third quarter. Favre’s leg twisted violently in the collision and it sent him hobbling to the sideline, although he would stay in the game.
The Saints picked off Favre on the play. Neither Ayodele nor McCray was flagged or fined for the sequence. McCray, however, was fined for another hit on Favre later in the game.
"I understand a quarterback’s going to get hit. People are going to get hit," Childress told the St. Paul Pioneer Press before the Vikings played the Saints again early in the next season. "It’s football. I don’t have any illusions about that.
"What I hate to see are the late hits or attempts to hurt anybody. I don’t think there’s a place for that in the game."
Reached by SI.com on Friday, Favre said he was “not going to make a big deal about it.”
“In all honesty, there’s a bounty of some kind on you on every play,” Favre said. “Now, in that game there were some plays that, I don’t want to say were odd, but I’d throw the ball and whack, on every play. Hand it off, whack. Over and over. Some were so blatant. I hand the ball to Percy Harvin early and got drilled right in the chin. They flagged that one at least.”
Jan. 16, 2010
Saints 45, Cardinals 14
An interception by Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner was compounded by a blindside block leveled by McCray.
Warner was helped off the field and went in for X-rays, although he later returned to the game after being diagnosed with bruised ribs.
“I think you’re crazy if you think that there weren’t defensive linemen that sat at their locker before the game, saying, ‘Hey, I’m buying dinner if we knock somebody out first,’ ” Warner told USA Today at the time. “Those kind of things have been around our game for a long time.”
Warner retired from the NFL a couple of weeks later, although he denied the hit played a major role in his decision to walk away from the game.
“In light of the investigation, you look at that hit and you may think about it differently,” Warner told the NFL Network recently. “The thing I would say about all these allegations is that you have to say, ‘Were there times when cheap shots (were) taken? Were they hitting people in ways or at times that … were outside the rule book?’
“You go back and look at the hit by Bobby McCray on me, and it was a violent hit and I felt it for weeks afterward. But I cannot … go back and look at it and say it wasn’t a legal hit. … It just happened to be one of those things where I wasn’t looking and he got a great shot on me.”
Oct. 22, 2006
Colts 36, Redskins 22
Peyton Manning lay on the turf and reached across to his right arm.
At the time, there wasn’t a lot of concern about the collision in which Manning’s neck was snapped back when he was hit up high by Phillip Daniels while being struck low, simultaneously, by Andre Carter — players on a Washington defense coached by Williams. Manning, who had his helmet ripped off on the play, stayed in the game after a timeout.
“Then we sort of forgot about it at halftime, and Peyton seemed fine,” Tony Dungy told NBC Sports and SI.com in September. “He lit it up in the second half. He was on fire. But that’s the year we started cutting back on his throws at practice.
“I’m not putting two-plus-two together. I just figure he’s getting older and he needs some time off, he’s made enough throws. But now, as I look back on it, there’s no doubt in my mind that this was the start of his neck problems.”
Daniels was fined $5,000 for the questionable tackle, although he wrote on Twitter last fall after Dungy’s comments — which have been replayed this week — that it wasn’t a dirty hit and he doubted that it led to the multiple surgeries Manning has undergone on his neck over the past two years.
“Sometimes as a QB, you have to know the end of the road and get down instead of trying to make a spectacular throw,” wrote Daniels, who is now the director of player development with the Redskins. “I have never been a dirty player, so him getting hurt in that game was not me trying to hurt him but rather him being in crazy position. I think he has thrown for a million yards since then and taken a few other hits since 2006.”
Five of the above incidents occurred during Williams’ New Orleans tenure. His Saints teams committed 15 unnecessary roughness penalties and eight roughing the passer penalties over the 2010 and 2011 seasons, according to Football Outsiders, both well above league averages, though not the highest total in the league.
But that statistical trend does not extend back to his earlier days. His time in Buffalo, Washington and Jacksonville saw far fewer such penalties, averaging about three of each during those eight seasons, according to Outsiders.
Williams-led defenses are certainly not the only to draw attention for rough play in recent years. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ James Harrison has been flagged for illegal hits on quarterbacks five times by himself since 2009 and has been fined for other hits as well. The Detroit Lions dealt with accusations of dirty play for much of the 2011 season, highlighted by a Thanksgiving Day incident in which defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh stomped on the arm of Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith.