The furor over the Saints’ bounties comes at a time when the league has focused on player safety by tightening its enforcement of rules that govern legal blows and, in particular, trying to reduce player concussions.
But that effort and the findings in the NFL’s investigation of the Saints’ bounty program, announced March 2, have run hard into what many players consider their on-field code, one that allows attempts to take stars and others off the field with crushing, but legal, blows.
Goodell said in a written statement that paying players to injure opponents crossed the line. “Let me be clear. There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so. . . . Programs of this kind have no place in our game and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL.”
Williams, the Saints’ defensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011, and now the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely. Coach Sean Payton was suspended for one year and General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games, the league announced. Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games. All the suspensions are without pay.
The Saints were fined $500,000 and stripped of a pair of second-round draft choices, one in this year’s NFL draft and one in 2013. Saints owner Tom Benson was cleared of wrongdoing after the league concluded he did not know about the bounties.
The investigation of players most heavily involved in the scheme is continuing. The league has said that some will face disciplinary measures.
The penalties are among the harshest in the sport’s history. Then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions defensive lineman Alex Karras for the 1963 season for gambling.
“I am speechless,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees wrote on Twitter. “Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this punishment.”
Williams’s case will be reviewed after the 2012 season, the league announced. His possible reinstatement will depend in part on his cooperation in any further proceedings.
In a written statement, Williams apologized for his involvement in the bounty program, saying, “It is not a true reflection of my values as a father or coach, nor is it reflective of the great respect I have for this game and its core principle of sportsmanship.” He added that he will “continue to cooperate fully with the league and its investigation.”
The Saints also issued a statement of apology, saying, “There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again.”
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,” Goodell said in his statement. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.”
When the results of the investigation of the Saints were announced, players and former assistant coaches who were with the Redskins during Williams’s tenure said that a similar bounty system existed in Washington. Some defended his tactics, saying that money was paid only for legal hits and that clean play was encouraged.
Gibbs, the Redskins’ head coach when Williams ran the defense, has said he was unaware of a bounty system. Some players said they knew only about payments for big plays such as interceptions and fumble recoveries.
But one former Redskins defender, Matt Bowen, wrote in the Chicago Tribune: “We targeted big names, our sights set on taking them out of the game. Price tags started low during the regular season — a couple hundred bucks for going after the quarterback hard or taking a running back out below the knee. Chop him down and give a quick smile when you got back to the huddle. You just got a bonus.”
Asked Wednesday whether he was surprised the NFL found no evidence of a Redskins bounty, Bowen, now a writer for the Tribune and the National Football Post, said: “I don’t know. I don’t really have anything further to say. I stand by what I wrote in the Tribune.”
Another former player, Phillip Daniels, now the Redskins’ director of player development, said earlier this month that Williams “never told us to go out there and break a guy’s neck or break a guy’s leg. It was all in the context of good, hard football.”
At least one Buffalo Bills player said a similar bounty program existed under Williams when he was there.
In its statement, the NFL said its staff had interviewed people about reports of bounties at other clubs but “no evidence was established showing that the programs at other clubs involved targeting opposing players or rewarding players for injuring an opponent.”
A league spokesman said the NFL would not comment publicly beyond that. But a person familiar with the league’s probe said the NFL’s investigators did not speak to Bowen because he is a member of the media and the conversation likely would not have remained private.
The person said that in talking to members of the Redskins’ organization, league investigators “could not corroborate any specific bounty program. Some people said, ‘It wasn’t like this. It was like that.’ So there were some different stories there.”
That person added: “Gregg Williams has been dealt with, and you could say he was the main person involved [with the Redskins]. Right now, at this point, is there cause to punish the Redskins? No. Could that change? Yes. [But] the other question is: How far back are you going to go?”
Goodell has asked DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, for his recommendations on discipline of players, according to a person close to the situation.
The NFL investigation of the Saints found that the team had a bounty program over the last three seasons. The league concluded that Williams administered the program, funded primarily by players and occasionally contributed money to it, and cited Payton and Loomis for failing to do more to halt it.
The fund surpassed $50,000 at times. Players were paid $1,500 for a hit that knocked an opponent from a game and $1,000 for a hit that led to an opposing player being helped off the field. Those amounts doubled or tripled for playoff games, according to the league’s investigation.
Players also were paid for crucial plays such as interceptions and fumble recoveries, the league said. All those rewards violate NFL rules.
Staff writer Mike Jones contributed to this report.