The New Orleans Saints are facing discipline from the NFL for violating the "bounty" rule, the league announced Friday.
An investigation by the NFL's security department revealed that between 22 and 27 defensive players on the Saints, as well as at least one assistant coach, ran a "bounty" program violating NFL rules during the 2009, ’10 and '11 seasons.
According to the NFL, the investigation "determined that this improper 'Pay for Performance' program included 'bounty' payments to players for inflicting injuries on opposing players that would result in them being removed from a game."
Players allegedly contributed to a cash pool and received cash payments from the pool based on their play in the previous week's game. There were payments made for plays including interceptions and fumble recoveries, but also for "cart-offs" (when an opposing player was carried off the field) and "knockouts" (when an opposing player was not able to return to the game).
The league said the pool of cash reached its peak during the 2009 playoffs, when the Saints made their run to the Super Bowl, and may have grown to $50,000 or more. The "bounty" program paid $1,500 for a "knockout" and $1,000 for a "cart-off" with payments doubling or tripling during the postseason.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will determine the discipline for the violation, which could include fines, suspensions and forfeiture of draft choices.
"The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for 'performance,' but also for injuring opposing players," Goodell said. "The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity."
The NFL reported that players were "willing and enthusiastic" participants in the "bounty" program and that amounts pledged were in some cases directed against a specific opposing player.
The "bounty" program was led by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who left the Saints to become the Rams' D-coordinator after last season, but other defensive coaches aware of it, according to the NFL, and Williams contributed his own money to the fund on occasion.
The Rams released the following statement from Williams:
"I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. Benson, and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the 'pay for performance' program while I was with the Saints. It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again."
Saints owner Tom Benson was fully cooperative with the investigation, according to the NFL, and evidence established that he was not aware of the program. Benson had informed the league that he directed Saints executive V.P./GM Mickey Loomis to ensure that any program be immediately discontinued, but the league found that Loomis did not carry out Benson's orders.
The league said that when it first discussed the allegations of a "bounty" program with Loomis in 2010, he denied knowledge of such a program and said he would make sure no program was in place. The NFL alleged that Loomis did not take "any effective action to stop these practices."
"I have been made aware of the NFL’s findings relative to the 'Bounty Rule' and how it relates to our club," Benson said in a statement released by the Saints on Friday. "I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation. While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans."
Saints head coach Sean Payton was not directly involved with the program, the NFL's report said, but he was aware of the allegations and "did not make any detailed inquiry or otherwise seek to learn the facts, and failed to stop the bounty program."
The league alleged that Payton never instructed his assistant coaches or players that the program could not continue.
Any appeal of the discipline the commissioner rules to be appropriate would be heard and decided by the commissioner, and Goodell has informed the Saints that he is reserving his authority to impose further discipline should more information on the subject be brought to his attention.
The way we see it
Whatever punishment that Goodell ultimately levies is expected to be very harsh.
He fined Patriots head coach Bill Belichick the NFL maximum $500,000 and the Patriots were ordered to pay $250,000 in 2007 for their involvement in "Spygate." The Patriots also had to give up their first-round pick that year for what Goodell called "a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field."
Goodell doesn't take these matters lightly. While we can only speculate as to the punishment the Saints' alleged violation of a long-standing rule will draw, "Spygate" set a precedent.
The Saints, and Williams, are facing severe consequences.