Whitner: Saints 'tried to knock QB out'
San Francisco safety Donte Whitner didn’t need proof that Gregg Williams was targeting 49ers players entering last season’s playoff matchup against the New Orleans Saints.
Whitner sensed something was amiss with how the Saints and their disgraced former defensive coordinator were conducting business long before the New Orleans bounty scandal and audio proof of Williams extolling his players to injure specific 49ers during a pre-game speech were revealed.
Whitner’s suspicions stemmed from a preseason game between the two teams in August. Speaking with me and co-host Jim Miller on Sirius XM NFL Radio, Whitner remembered that Williams called an inordinately high number of blitzes for a preseason contest.
Saints head coach Sean Payton had reportedly become upset that 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh wouldn’t discuss how he would use his starters so New Orleans could allocate play-time for its first-stringers accordingly. Saints radio broadcaster Jim Henderson told a Houston radio station (1560 the Game), “When that didn’t occur, Sean just said to Gregg, ‘Let the dogs out.’”
“I remember sitting on the sideline early in the game and watching the Saints send safety blitz after safety blitz, six- and seven-man blitzes trying to knock our quarterback out,” Whitner said Thursday. “I don’t know if it’s true that Sean Payton got mad at coach Harbaugh for not giving him some type of agreement on how much he was going to play his starters in a preseason game. Coach Harbaugh said, ‘I don’t have to give you an agreement. This is a competition league.’
“I guess (Payton) got mad and wanted to test some of our protections. We were a new team and this was one of our first games and they tried to knock our quarterback out.”
Williams tried wreaking more havoc during last January’s second-round playoff contest. Yahoo! Sports obtained audio of the pre-game speech that captures Williams advocating Saints players target Michael Crabtree’s knee and test whether fellow wideout Kyle Williams was fully recovered from concussions he had suffered earlier in the season. Sean Pamphilon, a documentary producer who provided the audio, also told Yahoo that Gregg Williams rubbed his fingers together to indicate a cash reward for whoever knocked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith out of the game.
Such behavior would be consistent with an NFL investigation that revealed Williams as the ringleader of a Saints bounty program between 2009 and 2011. It also indicates that Williams paid no heed to a warning given to the Saints by league officials before the playoffs to eliminate the bounties if they hadn’t done so already.
Williams, who is now defensive coordinator in St. Louis, was suspended indefinitely last month by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Payton (one season), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games) also were sanctioned.
The trio met with Goodell at league headquarters Thursday to appeal the suspensions. Goodell has said he would make an expedited ruling after the hearing was conducted.
Williams has opted not to appeal his suspension. But if you ask Whitner, Goodell didn’t go far enough with his punishment.
“Those are my teammates,” Whitner said. “If those things are true, I think it’s really disgusting and something should be done about it to a higher extreme than what is (already done). You’re out there intending to hurt guys. This is their careers and how they take care of their families.
“When you target guys specifically and aim to hurt, I think the penalty should be stiff. If we as players were to intentionally hit people with our helmets and get fined and suspended, eventually you’d probably not play in the league again. Everyone should be held to the same standard. It’s also in the rulebook. You cannot put bounties on guys or talk that way, put monetary value or anything of the sort.”
Whitner, who played with Buffalo from 2006 to 2011 before signing with San Francisco last year, said he has never participated on a team that ran a bounty system. Whitner also said 49ers coaches don’t include highlights of hits that injure opposing players in the team’s internal post-game highlight film because “it’s a little vicious. You never want to see a guy get injured or praise a guy (causing) injury. You want to praise a guy for making plays but not for injuring guys.”
Whitner did admit San Francisco will sometimes try to use an opposing player’s injury to their advantage. For example, the 49ers had a specific plan on how to defend New York Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks when they knew he entered last November’s game with a sore hamstring. Nicks was limited to two receptions for 41 yards and one touchdown.
“We knew we could get up in his face and jam him and he really couldn’t get the deep ball,” Whitner said. “But we’re not out there to hurt guys. If a guy has a concussion, we’re not out there trying to hit him in the head. If he has a (surgically repaired anterior cruciate ligament), we’re not trying to hit him in the knee to see if his ACL is OK.
“When you do that and you’re aiming to hurt a guy, you might mess up out there. If you’re going to make a tackle and you’re really thinking about hurting a guy’s knee or whatever, you might miss. When you’re on the field, you don’t really have time to think about other guys’ injuries. But to intentionally tell guys to hurt people and put monetary value on that, it’s just wrong.”
Whitner knows his words will ring hollow to some Saints fans. Whitner delivered a helmet-to-helmet blow that knocked New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas out in the first quarter of San Francisco’s 36-32 playoff victory.
Whitner, though, points to the fact that he wasn’t fined by the league for an illegal hit or penalized during the game.
“I didn’t go out intentionally to hurt him,” Whitner said. “Whenever I play and somebody has the football, I want to hit them as hard as I possibly can without injuring myself and intentionally injuring them. But I want to hit you as hard as I can. It’s my job.
“I’m a safety. One thing you’re supposed to do as a safety is strike fear into the opposition and impose (your will) on an offense. If you don’t have guys like that on defense, that’s when (offenses) run up and down the field and do whatever they want to do.”
That’s something the 49ers were determined to prevent from happening when facing the Saints in the playoffs.
“We knew taking the field that day that we were going to be the more physical team,” he said. “I remember telling myself that I was going to hit anything moving with the football that day. Talking to the guys, we were all ready to be extremely physical with the Saints (on) offense and defense. It really showed in that game.
“That just shows you don’t have to put money and bounties on things to get the job done. You’ve just got to believe in each other, believe in the team, get the job done, do it as a physical and as fast as you can possibly do it, and you’ll be victorious.”