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Loomis, Payton could face most trouble in Saints' bounty saga

There's plenty of blame to assign to plenty of figures involved in the Saints' embarrassing bounty scandal, and in due time an assortment of folks will end up paying in some way or another for their misdeeds.

But most of all, I wouldn't want to be in Mickey Loomis' or Sean Payton's shoes today. If there are heads in danger of rolling over this shady chapter in New Orleans team history, they belong to Loomis, the club's longtime general manager, and Payton, the team's ultra-successful head coach.

Who dat, indeed.

By my scorecard, Loomis has only one real boss to answer to in the organization -- team owner Tom Benson -- and the Saints' top front office executive just made him look very, very bad. It's not a smart career move to publicly embarrass the person who holds the key to your employment status, and in the franchise's chain of command, Loomis looks like the highest-ranking official who knew what was going on with the team's widespread use of a bounty program, and did nothing about it.

Even worse, Loomis, according to the NFL's internal investigation and report, went all Haldeman and Erhlichman on us and decided to cover up the existence of the team's bounty program, first denying any knowledge of it to the league when the NFL looked into the allegations in 2010, and then promising to dismantle and discontinue such a program if he found such evidence. The league's report contains four very damning sentences regarding Loomis' response to the Saints' bounty fund:

"When informed earlier this year of the new information, Mr. Benson advised league staff that he had directed his general manager, Mickey Loomis, to ensure that any bounty program be discontinued immediately. The evidence shows that Mr. Loomis did not carry out Mr. Benson's direction.

"Similarly, when the initial allegations where discussed with Mr. Loomis in 2010, he denied any knowledge of a bounty program and pledged that he would ensure that no such program was in place. There is no evidence that Mr. Loomis took any effective action to stop these practices.''

In other words, Loomis looked the other way, and hoped the story would go away. He decided it was better to protect his team's coaches and players than to do his job and act in the best interests of the franchise and Benson. Maybe that won't wind up being judged to rise to the level of a firable offense in the Saints organziation, but to orchestrate the cover-up of a potentially embarrassing organizational misdeed will get your butt canned plenty in the corporate world.

Payton could be in danger, too, depending on how he reacts to the league's investigation. League sources say if he comes clean about his team's bounty program and admits culpability, the penalties he faces will be calibrated accordingly. But if he doesn't, and the league provides air-tight evidence that he both knew about the program and failed to stop it, he could risk alienating Benson to the degree that firing would be a possiblility.

The league's discipline of Loomis and Payton remains fluid at the moment, but their reaction to the findings of the investigation and any steps they take to accept accountability will be taken into consideration. Still, the penalties are expected to be significant and severe, league sources said, and will be the stiffest handed down in many years. And the price of stonewalling will be exorbitant in the eyes of commissioner Roger Goodell.

That's why I wouldn't lay odds just yet that either Loomis or Payton survive this scandal. How they react to it could dictate whether they come out the other side with their jobs intact.

Loomis apparently forgot that he doesn't work for Payton, as powerful a figure as there is the Saints organization. He doesn't work for now-departed Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- and doesn't his escape to St. Louis to join Jeff Fisher's new staff now look anything but coincidental? And Loomis certainly doesn't work for the team's players, who should never be the tail wagging the dog, no matter how successful the team might be.

Loomis works for Benson. And he reportedly got caught both lying to the team owner, and to the league's investigators. If there's one thing we know about Goodell's particular mindset and make-up, it's that he doesn't like being lied to. Just ask Michael Vick. We can assume Benson feels similarly, although how he reacts to Loomis' and Payton's denials will soon tell us all we need to know.

It has been a very bad week indeed for Loomis. Locked into a tougher-than-expected contract negotiation with the franchise's all-world quarterback, Drew Brees, Loomis, according to Yahoo! Sports, is reported to have characterized Brees as a "very good'' quarterback, rather than "great.'' With Brees as beloved as any athlete in the city's history -- the revered Archie Manning included -- word of that kind of stance leaking out is a public relations nightmare in the making. Good luck getting the Saints fans on your side against Brees, who could run for mayor and win in a landslide.

And now this, the league's report on an extensive bounty program being run over the span of three seasons, involving tens of thousands of dollars of cash, and between 22 and 27 Saints defenders. Organized and run by Williams, at least tacitly condoned by Payton, and covered up by Loomis. Kind of takes the Saints' image down the path of a lowly sinner, doesn't it?

Again, what we know of Goodell is that he takes the issue of player safety as seriously as anything that crosses his desk and falls under his job's jurisdiction. And the Saints just made a mockery of the league's player safety efforts, with their head coach and their top front office executive letting boys be boys when it comes to the infliction of pain upon an opponent, and the thrill of potential financial gain that came with it.

This one stinks, NFL fans, and the stench goes top to bottom in the Saints organization. New Orleans can't realistically make everyone pay with their jobs. There will be league fines and likely suspensions. But for Loomis and Payton, the accountability should be at a level commensurate with their responsibility. They were in charge of this show, and they know what comes with being the men at the top.

You get the credit and the blame. And this time, there's nothing but blame to go around.

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