On the day after the New Orleans Saints were hit with some of the most severe penalties in NFL history for having a bounty program the past three seasons, opinion was mixed on whether the franchise will be able to continue its on-field success.
Former NFL coach Dick Vermeil said he doesn’t foresee the Saints thriving while their coach, Sean Payton, serves the season-long suspension imposed by the league Wednesday for his role in the bounty scandal.
“There’s certainly no way it can help them,” Vermeil said by telephone Thursday. “In the NFL, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. You never stay the same. They’re losing their leader. They’re losing, really, their offensive coordinator and game-day play-caller and game-planner, and he may be the best in the league at that. They’ll get by without him. But they won’t excel without him, in my opinion.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell imposed the disciplinary measures after the league concluded that the Saints offered players payments to injure opponents, then tried to cover it up when the league investigated. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, now the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely. Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for half a season. Defensive assistant Joe Vitt was suspended for six games. The Saints were fined $500,000 and were stripped of a pair of second-round draft choices.
Goodell has not yet imposed penalties on players.
“I am not surprised that Roger Goodell came down so hard on them,” Vermeil said. “He has been so adamant about protecting players with the fines for illegal hits and trying to get certain things out of the game to deal with the concussion issue. When you saw that they had such a long investigation and looked into this so aggressively...you knew he would take very serious action. Maybe the only thing that surprised me was the word ‘indefinite’ next to Gregg Williams’s name.
“I don’t think [Goodell] did it to try to use it as a deterrent to the rest of the league,” Vermeil said. “Those kinds of things usually don’t work. I think he just thought the infraction dictated this kind of penalty.”
But former Washington Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot said he thinks the Saints are uniquely qualified to overcome the penalties because they have quarterback Drew Brees, who set single-season NFL records last season for passing yards and completion percentage.
“It’s going to be hard for them,” Smoot said by phone Thursday. “But they have a coach on the field in Drew Brees. To me, they go hand in hand, Sean Payton and Drew Brees. I think their offense will be able to keep up the same pace. From the standpoint of the whole team, they’ll be able to band together. As football players, we’re always looking for things to bring us together. I’m looking for them to have that whole us-against-the-world mentality.”
Payton and Brees led the Saints to a Super Bowl triumph in the 2009 season. Last season, the Saints reached an NFC semifinal before losing at San Francisco.
Goodell is consulting with DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, before deciding disciplinary measures for the players most heavily involved in the bounty scheme. According to the league, the program was funded primarily by players. Defensive players for the Saints received cash payments for hits that injured opponents or knocked them off the field, according to the NFL investigation.
The union has been conducting its own review of the bounty case. It issued a written statement Thursday that said: “NFLPA leadership looks forward to meeting with the commissioner to discuss the league’s ‘bounty’ investigation. To date, neither the league nor the Saints, have helped us facilitate interviews with members of management or the coaching staff. We expect the League to provide all information so that we can ensure a fair process for all who were involved.”.
Smoot said he found the initial set of penalties stunning.
“I couldn’t believe them,” Smoot said. “I understand the whole image thing. I know he’s trying to clean up the NFL. But this goes back 100 years of football. You hear the tales of this kind of stuff happening way back. I think it was all about someone being made an example of. The Saints were the team that got made an example of. They got caught.” Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson played 13 seasons for the New York Giants in the 1970s and ‘80s. He played for four different head coached and learned first-hand that pro football is a transient business in which players must adapt quickly when a new regime arrives.
But this situation, Carson said, is much different.
“At the end of the day in pro football, you have to move on,” Carson said Thursday. “Change is part of it. But this is going to be awkward. I went through several coaching changes in my career, but it was nothing like this. This is an entirely different thing. Whoever is there doing that job, he’s only there temporarily. The coach is suspended and he’ll be back at some point.”
Because this situation is so unique, Carson said, there’s no telling exactly how things will turn out for the Saints.
“It can go one of two ways,” Carson said. “It can be a rallying cry for guys. The more veteran guys might take it as a challenge. They have a relationship with their coach and they’ll look at it as needing to play well to back him. But with younger guys, it might be demoralizing because their leader isn’t there. They look to the sideline and he’s not around. It could leave everything in limbo for them.”
The Saints’ best reply, Carson said, will be to win games.
“The older guys, they’ll rally around their coach and they’re going to want to stick it in the face of the league and the commissioner by winning anyway,” he said.
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