The Saints' season ended with a feeling of woulda, shoulda, coulda. This next one is likely to begin with a sense of serious regret over the past.
Just as the team has been struggling to deal with its untenable salary-cap situation comes Friday's story about defensive players and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams issuing bounties for injuring opposing players.
Williams, who left the team following the Saints' crushing playoff loss to the 49ers in San Francisco, is now with the Rams. He's certain to be disciplined heavily by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell because the league says it holds coaches to higher standards than the players.
But worry not: The Saints will get hammered here. Expect draft picks and a lot of cash to end up in the league's hands.
The team that already is without its first-round pick and facing some real tough negotiations with Drew Brees (which handcuffs them with their other big-name free agents) is about to lose a lot more.
This is a franchise that was the darling of the NFL in their playoff runs of 2006 and '09, the latter of which ended up in a Super Bowl title. Casual fans who otherwise never have been Saints fans and New Orleansians alike loved the Saints' relentless offense and take-no-prisoners, attacking defense.
We now know the genesis of that defensive identity. According to the league, in a practice that began in that championship season when Williams joined the team, the Saints put prices on opponents' heads. The defenders who knocked out those opposing players — such as Kurt Warner in the divisional round of the playoffs or Brett Favre in the NFC championship game — were gifted bounties.
A regular-season "knockout" netted $1,500, per the reports. Having a player carted off as a result of a hit earned the defensive players $1,000. But the stakes were raised in the postseason, with Warner (who was issued a crushing blow that briefly landed him on the bench) and Favre, who was repeatedly hit after he threw the ball, suffering some vicious hits vs. New Orleans.
This news is sure to not resonate well with the same common fans who endorsed this team as their own. If Spygate forever tainted the Patriots as anything but a feel-good team, this is certain to taint the Saints and paint them as ruthless henchmen.
And it most certainly isn't going over well with Goodell, who in his words has made player safety one of his priorities since taking over the job. He will be unmerciful in his discipline. At a time when concussions have become perhaps the biggest black eye on the NFL, a story like this cuts to the core.
"The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for 'performance,' but also for injuring opposing players," Goodell said in a league-issued 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 Saints can expect to be gutted. Spygate — and doesn't this feel a lot worse? — cost the Patriots a first-round pick and $250,000, and it cost Bill Belichick a $500,000 check to the commish. All indications are that the punishment for the Saints will be a lot heavier.
But do the Saints realize their errors? There wasn't a lot of contrition in the initial words of owner Tom Benson.
"I have been made aware of the NFL's findings relative to the 'Bounty Rule' and how it relates to our club," Benson said. "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."
Does that sound like a team that is frightened by the ramifications? The league has implicated GM Mickey Loomis, head coach Sean Payton, Wiliams and 22 to 27 defensive players from the past three seasons for their actions — or, in the case of Loomis and Payton, inactions.
Several incidents suddenly come to mind. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson said the Saints were guilty of cheap shots last season around his injured ankle. Panthers WR Steve Smith was hit in the endzone after scoring by Saints SS Roman Harper, which led to a fight. Giants WR Hakeem Nicks also was defenseless when he was blasted by Saints S Isa Abdul-Quddus in a Monday-night blowout this season. That's three star players feeling like they were cheap-shotted. Makes you think that there really is something here.
When contacted about the story, Smith wasn't surprised with the story. "It doesn't shock me at all," Smith told PFW. "I wouldn't expect anything less from them."
It's not like Williams or the players hid this very well. Talk among fans and media has followed this line for quite a while. Williams openly talked about "remember me" shots in the '09 postseason, words that Payton got heat for in the run-up to Super Bowl XLIV. But Williams also made a similar statement about Lions WR Calvin Johnson: "Guys that are 6-(foot)5 end up being 5-5 when they get flipped over on their head," he said.
Payton has been accused of a few things in his day, but this will go down as one of the worst. Some say his arrogance has been his Achilles' heel. It might end up being true if he turned a blind eye to this happening under his watch.
When the NFL started investigating these allegations in 2010, the bounty program might have dried up once the Saints caught wind of the league involvement. After all, this was a franchise that was cloaked with a very unsavory story earlier that year regarding Payton and LB coach Joe Vitt and the alleged abuse and theft of painkillers from the team.
But all signs indicate that the bounty program was up and running this past season when the Saints' defense, though hardly a terrific unit, was perhaps guilty of some questionable late and unscrupulous hits in their quest to win another Super Bowl.
Now everything appears to have unraveled for the Saints. The Giants team that they had blasted in Week 12 last season ended up winning the Super Bowl. The Saints left San Fran feeling like they were robbed of a game they should have won. They are currently facing a nightmarish contract situation with Brees, OG Carl Nicks, WR Marques Coltson and other key free agents, almost certain to lose some of them.
There seems to be a Super Bowl-hosting-city curse here, with the Colts, Cowboys, Dolphins, Buccaneers and Cardinals all suffering through poor seasons the year their home stadium hosted the big game. Maybe this year is the Saints' turn at bad luck as they get set to host the Super Bowl next season?
Although the word luck is highly inappropriate — this was their choosing. This system was introduced, embraced and not quashed once it was brought to the higher-ups' attention. The morality doesn't need to be explained to people. It's clear: By aiming to seriously injure opponents, the Saints increased the chances of their careers potentially ending. Whether or not this is part of the NFL culture, as several players and former players took to Twitter to say in the aftermath of the allegations, it's just frightening and wrong.
Goodell will come down with the hammer here. How quickly things have fallen apart for the Saints.