Sports

Saints' coach, staff gutted by suspensions

By Bill Lankhof, Toronto Sun

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was handed his punishment Wednesday. (REUTERS/Sean Gardner)

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was handed his punishment Wednesday. (REUTERS/Sean Gardner)

Roger Goodell just got his bounty.

And Gregg Williams and the New Orleans Saints will be paying.

Big time.

The NFL commissioner, noting, “I don’t think you can be too hard on people that put at risk our players’ health and safety,” delivered a hit that has sent shivers down the spine of the Saints’ franchise.

Goodell’s biggest thunderbolt: head coach Sean Payton, suspended for the entire 2012 schedule for turning a blind eye to three years of head-hunting by his defence.

“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. Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness, and safety. 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,” Goodell said.

Williams, Payton’s defensive co-ordinator, was already gone to the St. Louis Rams. But he now has been suspended indefinitely for setting up and administering a program that encouraged and paid players to hurt opponents. Williams released a statement through the Rams, saying: “I’d like to again apologize wholeheartedly to the NFL, Coach Fisher, the entire Rams organization and all football fans for my actions. Furthermore, I apologize to the players of the NFL for my involvement as it is not a true reflection of my values as a father or coach ....

I will do everything possible to re-earn the respect of my colleagues, the NFL and its players in hopes of returning to coaching in the future.”

That return will not come anytime soon. His situation will be reviewed after next season but there’s no guarantee his suspension will be lifted. Saints GM Mickey Loomis has been suspended eight games, and assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt has been suspended six games.

Williams and the Saints are not the first to turn football into a mercenary sport. But they are the first to get hammered by the league and officially censured for a planned pay-for-pain scenario. “No one is above the game or the rules that govern it. Respect for the game and the people who participate in it will not be compromised,” said Goodell.

The NFL investigation found Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton was among a list of players specifically targetted by the Saints’ defence. Already known to be on the list were Brett Favre, Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers.

The Saints’ franchise was fined only $500,000 and stripped of a second-round pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in 2013. That might seem light. But losing Payton for a season leaves them without a head coach in a season they had hopes of becoming the first NFL team to play in a Super Bowl in front of their hometown fans.

And, it could even cost them franchise quarterback Drew Brees, depending on what is read into his reaction Wednesday. Brees took to Twitter after the punishment was announced, noting he couldn’t believe it.

“I am speechless,” Brees wrote. “Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this punishment.”

That explanation isn’t going to change much from Goodell’s statement. He is ticked. About Bountygate. About being lied to for three years when the league initially began investigating accusations by the Vikings that the Saints had tried to injure Favre.

“Clearly, we were lied to,” Goodell said. “We investigated this back in 2010, we were told it was not happening, it continued for another two years until we got credible evidence late in the 2011 season and we were able to identify significant information that verified from multiple sources that this was going on for a three-year period.”

Brees was already in a contract impasse with the Saints. The club made him their franchise player but he was balking at signing the one-year tender. If Payton’s not going to be around; maybe Brees decides he doesn’t want to be around either.

So the Saints are feeling the pain. Not the kind they tried to inflict for so many years. But a mental, emotional, psychological pain that will stain the franchise for years.

Payton was reported to be shocked and “speechless” and that the punishment was far more severe than he had expected.

“I did talk to him and he’s stunned to say the least,” the NFL Network’s Jay Glazer said. “I think the entire team thought maybe there’d be a four-game suspension, but not a year. I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not OK.’ He is stunned. He’s going to lose about $8 million. He is beside himself here.”

Payton had made plans for Vitt to take over as interim coach during a shorter suspension. But with Vitt also suspended for six games, that won’t work.

Either offensive co-ordinator Pete Carmichael or former Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who was slated to replace Gregg Williams as defensive co-ordinator, could step in as the head coach.

Some current and former Saints players who took part in the bounty program may also be suspended, although the league is talking with the players’ union, before making any decisions. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who reportedly offered $10,000 to any player who could knock Favre out of the NFC Championship Game, is believed to be one of up to 22 players who could face punishment.

Goodell said he’s disappointed in those players who took part in the bounty program and in those who tried to hide it.

“We have a serious violation of an existing rule that threatens the health and welfare of our players,” Goodell said. “In addition, this went on for three years and it was investigated, we were misled, and there were denials throughout that period. Meanwhile, there continued to be risk to our players and to the integrity of our game. So it calls for a very significant and clear message.”

Consider the message delivered. About as subtle as Ray Lewis. Untouched. Up the middle...

 

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