It's crazy to think that, just two years ago, the city of New Orleans was in the grip of Who Dat fever and, with most of the world still mindful of Hurricane Katrina, the Saints Super Bowl victory was seen as the climax of the city's return. Now, they're the NFL's Public Enemy No. 1. All it took was one announcement from Commissioner Roger Goodell's office.
To recap: a two-year investigation found the New Orleans Saints guilty of violating the league's "bounty rule" by paying players under the table for big plays and for taking out opposing players. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams issued an apology. Tom Benson released a statement.
Now, NFL and most sports media will be quick to tell you that THIS IS A HUGE SCANDAL GUYS OMIGOD!!! (Sports Illustrated has gone as far as putting the Saints' actions in the same category as a serial child rapist). NFL players, though, know better. Both Brett Farve and Kurt Warner - players who were on the business end of the bounty-backed hits - have pretty much shrugged off the fact that they were the targeted by Saints players. Comments like those were made by almost every other player and say the same thing: this happens all the time. Not to mention it's a practice in football that dates back to at least the 1980s, if not further back. Shoot, this wasn't even the first team that Williams coached that put bounties on players. If anything, this scandal is just a reminder that football is an incredibly violent game that destroys players' bodies and has, at best, a vague moral compass.
More level-headed pundits have already pointed out that, considering how widespread the "bounty" practice in the NFL seems to be, this is nothing more than a P.R. stunt by Roger Goodell and the league in order to send a message about player safety. Regardless, the Saints and Gregg Williams are now the NFL's Public Enemies No. 1 and, like it or not, Who Dat Nation has to accept it.
That being said, there are plenty of reasons to NOT be concerned about this "scandal" and, as Tom Benson said, be happy with "putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future." Here are at least five:
1 — Player bounties are not cheating — As Clancy Dubos pointed out earlier, even though the NFL will likely bring down a harsher punishment on the Saints than was issued to the New England Patriots for "spygate", anyone who considers player bounties cheating is a complete loon. The Saints broke a rule in the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, not one in the NFL's football rule book. Player-led pools are, at worst, some sort of illegal gambling akin to those March Madness brackets that are supposedly illegal and yet every workplace does them. Getting money under the table for making big plays is only different from incentive-based bonuses in contracts is that the former isn't allowed under the CBA and the latter is. End of story.
2 — The Saints didn't play "dirty" — The invaluable analysts over at Football Outisders pointed this out in bigger detail, but it's worth noting that in 2009 (the year that's getting all the headlines for when Williams implemented the bounty system), the Saints had just three unnecessary roughness penalties and just two roughing the passer penalties all season. Overall, the Saints were in the bottom third in the league in terms of defensive penalties and yards lost due to penalties. Now, it's true that the number of roughing penalties increased over the course of the next two seasons, but considering that the Saints' overall defensive numbers got worse since their Super Bowl run, it's more indicative that New Orleans just didn't have a good defense. Moreover, as Darren Sharper put it in a radio interview, the math doesn't make sense for players to try and score a $500 bounty with an illegal hit when NFL fines range in the tens of thousands of dollars.
3 — Gregg Williams will probably be the biggest fall guy — The Saints will undoubtedly be fined by the league and lose some draft picks (likely more than Spygate but not by much) but don't expect to see some sort of 'death penalty' for New Orleans. This is thanks to Tom Benson not being aware of the bounty and otherwise being completely uninvolved in it. NFL owners like to stick together and, seeing as how Benson did nothing wrong, don't think the league will come down so hard on the Saints that it directly limits their ability to compete next season.
Gregg (the extra "g" is for "goat") Williams, on the other hand, is a whole lot less popular than Benson and has a whole lot less power. Williams is also no longer with the Saints, which means any punishment dealt to him won't really affect the Black and Gold. Some have already called for a lifetime ban for Williams which, in all honesty, seems a bit unfair if not hypocritical considering that the bounty system he used is so widespread. But rest assured that, out of all of this, Williams' punishment — be it a multi-game, season-long or lifetime suspension — will make the Saints' punishment seem mild by comparison.
(Also a side note: You can also expect Jonathan Vilma to get a harsh punishment from the league if only for the fact that he offered so much money to anyone who'd take out Brett Farve in the NFC Championship games. It's headlines like that that get Roger Goodell's blood boiling and he's been nothing but consistent in dishing out heavy-handed suspensions to players who make him or the NFL look bad.)
4 — These headlines are coming in March — Regardless of when this story broke, it would have made the Saints look bad. But aren't you glad that we heard about Bountygate in March as opposed to, say, August (when training camp is set to begin) or in October (just as the regular season starts)? The NFL and mainstream sports media are more than happy to make this out to be one of the league's biggest scandals, but at least it's coming at a time when players aren't practicing together and are being made available to the media to answers a barrage of inane questions about "how does this affect you" and "do you think you played dirty" and more blah, blah, blah. Had this story broke during training camp or the regular season, you can bet that it would've been on the biggest distractions this team has ever faced, loaded on the inevitable season-long distraction about whether the Saints can be the first team to host a Super Bowl. Instead, the story broke in March and, by the time the regular season rolls around, no one will care any more.
5 — This will only serve to motivate the Saints going forward — Right now, Sean Payton and Mikey Loomis are being admonished for being so arrogant and stupid to have known about the bounty system and to have let it happened. But, once again, writers are blowing it out of proportion to the extent that they think the Saints' Super Bowl-winning head coach and GM should be fired. In short: firing Loomis and Payton would be idiotic.
To be clear, Payton and Loomis thinking that they could lie to Roger Goodell's face and get away with it was also idiotic, but don't think this means their tenure in New Orleans has been jeopardized. Loomis and Payton have done more for this franchise than any scandal short of actual cheating or murder could jeopardize (heck, vicodin scandal after the Super Bowl could have had way more of an impact because, had Payton been caught actually stealing prescription drugs, he could've gone to jail).
After all, what exactly are Tom Benson's options here aside from allowing the league to dole out punishments to his GM and head coach as it sees fit? Do you really think that Benson will fire the man that, after so many years of crappy teams, able to construct a championship-caliber roster (Loomis)? Or that he'd fire the man that, after so many crappy coaches, was finally able to get his roster to be competitive every year (Payton)? There were 11 head coaches, coordinators or GMs that were fired during or after last season and not one of them lost their jobs because they lied to their owner about their team's bounty program. They were fired because their teams were garbage.
Payton and Loomis are not paid to be great, level-headed and approachable fellows. They're paid to win football games. Good or bad, people who are usually paid a lot for and are really good at winning football games are usually cocky jerks with an over-inflated sense of importance. But, be honest: would you rather have a nice, honest guy as your head coach or GM, or a guy that stops at nothing (short of breaking the law) to win your team Super Bowls? Now, more than ever, realizing that goal has never meant more to either.
And, for the sake of balance, here's one really big reason that the you should be worried about Bountygate:
It's completely overshadowed Drew Brees' contract debacle. At first, this might seem like a good thing, after all, no one likes to read stories about how your team's franchise quarterback (and, really, the greatest quarterback your city has ever seen) is having a falling out with his team over his contract. But the fact that the Saints have to deal with the Bountygate fallout means that they have less time to focus on resolving Drew Brees' contract.
Brees is already angry that the Saints didn't just give him a max contract nearly identical to those given to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, and now he's looking to endure a season under a franchise tag if he and the Saints can't come to terms on an extension. All in all, this is the biggest story of the Saints offseason — a story that directly affects how the team will play and their chances at winning — and it's been completely supplanted by the NFL's doing a P.R. blitzkrieg on a total non-scandal.
All in all, though, not a great time for Who Dats. The good news is that, eventually, this storm will pass and, as soon as the season starts, it will just be about football. We just gotta wait six months.