Saturday, March 3, 2012

Scrutiny On The Bounty: The NFL, Saints and Inconsistency

It was September 29, 2008 against the rival Baltimore Ravens. Rashard Mendenhall takes the ball and gets hit by linebacker Ray Lewis squarely in his shoulder, fracturing it and putting him out for the season.

Before the next game between the two teams, during the "2 Live Stews" syndicated radio show on Oct. 17, Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs said that they had put a bounty on Hines Ward and Mendenhall. Suggs was asked, "Did y'all put a bounty out on that young man [Mendenhall]?" Suggs replied, "Definitely. The bounty was out on him and the bounty was out on [Ward]...we just didn't get [Ward] between the whistles."

It was March 2, 2012 when it was revealed that the New Orleans Saints had bounties not on a hated rival's key player, but on every opposing player in the NFL from 2009 to 2011.

Obviously, no one in the Saints organization was aware of what Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, said on the matter shortly thereafter.

Anderson told "That 'bounty' notion is completely against the rules. To the extent that someone is engaged in that activity, we will look into it and address it. Yes, we've seen the comments and we're trying to determine the completeness of the circumstances."

Weren't the words, "completely against the rules" definitive enough?

Before I go any further, let me be clear about the fact that this blog post won't read like a breaking news report. I'll leave the fact-finding to Mike Florio of and Adam Schefter of ESPN, @profootballtalk and @AdamSchefter respectively on Twitter. This post will, though, entertain thoughts on the ramifications this may have on several fronts.

To that point, it was Adam Schefter who reported that NFL security had determined that there were between 22 and 27 defensive players on the Saints maintained a bounty program. It was defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who administered the program with knowledge of other defensive coaches.

The NFL scrutiny of the Saints began in 2010 when allegations were made that the Saints targeted such quarterbacks as Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. The investigation contains 18,000 documents totaling more than 50,000 pages.

Regarding the bounty program and the monies paid on different players and for different results, the NFL-issued release stated: “The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in the release.

“The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and 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 league’s release said that the program not only included payments for fumbles and interceptions, but also $1,000 for inflicting injuries that resulted in players being carried off the field and $1,500 for players being knocked out of the game.

The release also stated that coach Sean Payton, while not involved in the program directly, knew about the bounty and did nothing to stop it. For a certainty, a mistake on his part. One for which he will have to answer in some fashion.

Discipline for the Saints could include fines, suspensions and forfeiture of draft choices, per Adam Schefter. Commissioner Goodell will determine the discipline. Schefter also said, "a safe prediction: Saints will be disciplined far worse than the Patriots were for Spygate."

If that's the case, then, while Sean Payton won't get more than the slap on the wrist Bill Belichik received, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who was also has been implicated, should get decidedly more than was divvied out in 2005.

It was reported by Pro Football Talk that, though the relevant portion of the release was somewhat unclear, it appears that Loomis may have lied to owner Tom Benson about the existence of a bounty program and/or failed to end the program after being told by Benson to do so.

If that is to be believed, you're looking at insolence and complicity. If it isn't to be believed and Tom Benson was involved, now you also have collusion and Goodell has a potential dilemma in front of him.

Goodell already has tenuous relations with the players, so another light-handed reaction to something done by an owner and/or GM will set relations on it's ear. Especially when considering how conversely heavy-handed he has been on them at times. Goodell and the NFLPA will have to work together closely on this matter to avoid having a noticeable limp as the NFL moves forward.

As it is, the NFLPA says it will study league's report on Saints' bounties. “Health and safety is a paramount issue to the NFLPA,” the union said in a statement. The rest of the statement and Pro Football Talk's commentary on it can be read here:

Kurt Warner, who was earlier mentioned specifically as a targeted player said this about it: "It's definitely disappointing, but I won’t say that I’m completely surprised...that there were teams out there doing those kinds of things behind closed doors."

“I think that’s part of the game, and I think that’s part of the mindset,” Warner said. “And I’m not going to tell you that I haven’t believed that there was probably defensive players that got together and said, ‘Hey, you know, a thousand bucks for the first guy to knock Kurt out of a football game.’ I’m sure that’s been a part of our league for a long time.”

This is isn't the first time Gregg Williams has done this. The Washington Post reported that the Redskins had a bounty system for big hits on opponents under Williams, who was their defensive coordinator from 2004-2007, per Adam Schefter. Williams has since apologized for this "terrible mistake":

Pro Football Talk suggested that, If Goodell really wants to punish the Saints, he should take away their franchise tag:

Doing so would strike an immediate blow to the Saints who, per a league source, used the exclusive version of the franchise tag on Drew Brees. He won't be able to talk to any other teams. So, if the Saints punishment is indeed coming by March 25, as Jay Glazer has stated, there is time to halt their dealings and

That's just one option, of course, and I'm not here to debate punishments to be levied anyway. I don't sit on the rules committee, nor do I rule with an iron-mixed-with-clay fist, so I'll leave judgement to the purview of those in charge.

No, what comes into light for me is that there is an ancillary issue that is of the prime benefit to Steelers fans and true NFL fans. The development of this story forces NFL fans, and people in general around the country and world, who only read the sensationalistic headlines and snippets regarding the Steelers and their players, and even certain overly vocal Browns players, to acknowledge and turn their attention to actual and admittedly dirty players and coaches.

Those same ones will also have to put down their torches and leave the James Harrison witch hunt or be exposed as significantly less-than-intelligent. Harrison said he wants the opponent to feel pain when he hits them, to hurt them (similar to things said by many players over the years, including NFL darlings and Hall of Famers Deacon Jones, Chuck Bednarik and Dick "Night Train" Lane), but not to cause injuries. Certainly not as a part of some sort of bounty either. Clearly, there's a difference.

Mark Kaboly put it well when he said: "Ironic this is that @jharrison9292 (James Harrison's Twitter handle) got fined $20K for what was deemed a dirty hit to New Orleans QB Drew Brees two years ago" during the time of the bounties.

Ironic indeed.

As a Steelers fan, I'm keenly concerned with the highly resented implications, even outright accusations of the "dirty" play of the Steelers. Especially where it concerns outside linebacker James Harrison. Even more so now that this has come to light.

The NFL and Goodell have been very inconsistent in how the NFL's games have been called and how fines have been assessed. Except when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers and one James Harrison. The inconsistent practices of the former have caused even non-Steelers fans to wonder aloud if Goodell has some axe to grind with latter. When that happens, you know there is a problem with balance...or the lack thereof.

I won't demand an apology, a la Tom Hagen in The Godfather II, knowing that there are times when Harrison has, unfortunately, laid illegal hits. That would be excessive and, to be blunt, a laughable request.

I simply have desire to see Goodell handle this properly and without the cloak and dagger feel of Spygate. Not to mention handling the Saints problem with the same ardor he has used with another Black and Gold clad team and eliminate the myth of Steelers as a "dirty" least until the next time the Steelers play the Cleveland Browns.