When Vikings coach Brad Childress returned to Minneapolis after the NFC Championship loss two-plus years ago, he got a tape together of eight hits on quarterback Brett Favre that were not flagged for penalties in the game. He was, I am told, very upset about what he saw as the excessive brutality in the game that left Favre bruised and hobbled afterward, and he wanted the league to look into the hits.
It's not uncommon for a coach, especially a losing one, to send several plays for the league to review after a game. Eight is a lot. And the league, led by then-vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, did look into them. Pereira found only one of the hits to be a play that, in his opinion, should have been flagged: the high-low hit by Saints linemen Bobby McCray and Remi Ayodele late in the third quarter on a play Favre rushed, threw an interception and was hit after he released the ball.
That play, clearly, should have been flagged by referee Pete Morelli. The league admitted it a couple days later, and ended up fining McCray $20,000 for that play and another earlier in the game when he drove himself into Favre after a handoff. (A handoff, mind you; not a pass. How often have you seen unnecessary roughness called on a defensive player for hitting the quarterback after a handoff? I can't recall ever seeing that, aside from this play.)
Interesting what might have happened had Morelli thrown the flag.
The game was tied at 21 when Favre threw the interception, then got chopped down. The resulting personal foul against McCray would have given the Vikings a first down at the New Orleans 24 with 1:59 left in the third quarter. Let's say Favre, who was helped off the field with his ankle injury after the play, missed the rest of that series and Tarvaris Jackson, the backup, entered the game. Let's assume, for a moment, that the drive stalled and the Vikings had fourth down from the Saints 20-yard line. That would have set up a weather-less 37-yard field-goal try by Ryan Longwell (28 of 30 in field goals that season). Would it have made a difference in the outcome of the game, which was 28-28 after four quarters? The game of course was won by the Saints, 31-28, in overtime.
Hard to imagine Favre, regardless how he felt, not playing in the Super Bowl two weeks later. I bet he would have, come hell or high water. But he wasn't sure about that when we spoke Friday. "I wonder if I would have been able to play in the Super Bowl,'' said Favre. "I'm just telling I could not walk on Tuesday. That was a bad one.''
Just another part of this story that makes you sit back and wonder a lot of things about that day in January 2010.
One more point about this story, on a personal note: Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita is ensnared in it. I reported in my SI magazine story this week that Fujita is one of three defensive leaders who pledged between $2,000 and $10,000 that season toward the bounty pool. Fujita told me he has given money to players over his career for performance-related things like interceptions, forced fumbles and special-teams tackles inside the 20, but he said he never has pledged a dime to any cause that promoted injuring an opponent. There are still so many parts of this story that remain cloudy, and you can judge Fujita and his claims for yourself.
But I have gotten to know Fujita well over the past couple of years for his work as a member of the NFLPA board of directors and as one of the driving forces behind former Saint Steve Gleason's foundation and Gleason's struggle with ALS. With the NFLPA, I found him driven like very few on the board to work to improve player safety and to lessen non-game contact work that players must endure. His work was legitimate and dedicated.
He has done even more for Gleason, particularly on Gleason's trip to the Super Bowl with two fellow ALS patients. Fujita, now a Cleveland Brown, got a friend of Colt McCoy's to fly the Gleason group to Indianapolis for the game by private plane. He arranged for the tickets. He arranged for the hotel rooms, which was quite difficult. He asked for no credit and in fact eschewed credit when any came his way. All he wanted to do was something for his friend to make sure the roadblocks and detours that would normally make such a trip difficult for a man with Gleason's physical struggles would disappear. And they did.
Fujita didn't seek headlines for his NFLPA work, nor for the stuff he has done for Gleason. This is a very good human being who -- and I am not sure of this -- may regret today getting caught up in something sordid, but something so accepted in the private NFL world of bounties for making plays. I'm not talking about bounties for knocking foes out of games. I'm talking about payments for performance. Every player on that defense will face potential discipline for this issue, Fujita included. I just wanted to tell you what I think of the man.
It's been a long time since I've gotten more email on one topic. I want to give as many of you as I can the chance to be heard.
COULD THEY BE THE RAIDERS II? "I've long believed that Gregg Williams' defenses were a bunch of cheap-shotting thugs who got away with it because the officials turned a blind eye to their shenanigans. With the recent news about the bounty program, and the sense that the Saints want to cheapskate Drew Brees, can you see the Saints falling from NFL darling to the team everyone loves to hate?''-- Mark L, Baltimore
Time will tell. Certainly there's going to be a scarlet letter on the franchise over this issue.
WHITHER THE RAMS? "Given the despicable bounty program allegations surrounding Gregg Williams, do the Rams have any recourse about his hiring as defensive coordinator? Can they and will they fire Williams?''-- Caitlin, Brockton, Mass.
I'm told they're going to hang onto Williams. But if he's suspended for the season, they may have to reconsider.
COMPARING IT TO SPYGATE. "I may be a Saints fan, but I understand the fact they need to be punished, regardless whether other teams did the same. But I'm sorry, it's not worse than Spygate *in the context of the sport*. Morally, ethically, yes it's worse. But the Patriots cheated in a way that calls into question the results of their games over a period of seven years (which includes three Super Bowl wins) due to their videotaping signals. That can have an actual effect on who wins and who loses. Bounties simply don't. I think it's completely ridiculous if Roger Goodell dishes out multiple suspensions when Bill Belichick didn't miss a single day of work when he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar.''-- Nick Saikley, Mobile, Ala.
Understood. I see your argument. No question the Patriots did gain a competitive advantage through the videotaping of signals. But I believe this is worse. The league is defending itself against lawsuits claiming the game is too violent and leads to too much head trauma. They have to bring the hammer down on a team that has a coach and players paying and earning off-the-books cash for trying to injure opponents and knock them out of games.
THIS STUFF HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. "Don't NFL players try to knock key opponents out of every single game of significance? No one can honestly make the case that they don't. So either every single game has bounties on the line, or the additional money is likely not driving the behavior in the select games that do. I have a hard time believing that the Saints wouldn't have still beaten the hell out of Favre as a means to win that game, even if there weren't an extra dime in play."-- David Sweida, Nashville
The fact is, though, that the NFL claims to have a player leader on the Saints offering $10,000 to knock a quarterback out of the game by hurting him. The league can't tolerate that, in my opinion.
A SAINTS FAN IS SAD. "Your article on the bounty issue was extremely sad to me as a Saints fan. It steals the good feelings that we experienced three years ago when the season had a storybook feeling associated with it. Now, I feel foolish for buying Sean Payton's book after the Super Bowl and believing that he is above board and something special. Instead, it feels like the team image of standing with New Orleans that they portrayed was a fraud. I really wanted the good guys to be victorious and it doesn't feel that way this morning. Am I being too harsh?''-- Kenneth Garrett, Cypress, Texas
I think you need to let the story play out a little bit. I'd like to hear from Payton and Mickey Loomis and the players involved a little more. But you're right -- there's no question this tarnishes what they did they did three years ago. I don't think it ruins it, but some of the good feeling has to be dissolving.
VIKE FANS ARE NOT PLEASED. "As a Vikings fan, the Saints story has me particularly incensed. Without knowing all of the details now coming out, it was obvious watching the 2009 NFC Championship that the Saints were playing dirty and to injure Favre. Their tactics succeeded in winning the game.
Because of the high-low hit posted on Page 1 of your article, Favre didn't have the wheels to run for what would likely have been a game-clinching first down at the end of regulation and instead threw an interception across his body. It's not too much of a stretch to say that the dirty play won them the SuperBowl (by getting them past the Vikings) and might have taken one away from Minnesota.
Furthermore, the dirty play and injuries set this franchise back for the future. Favre never got better after that game. For better or worse, Brad Childress and the Vikings didn't have a plan B and imploded after Favre's return the following year. Childress got fired over it, and it remains to be seen whether Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier will be of much help in getting the franchise back on track.
In the NCAA, when there are severe violations a team will sometimes vacate wins and a championship. It happened here in Minnesota for men's basketball when there was an academic scandal. I would suggest something like that here as well, due to the bodily harm intentionally done to Favre and the collateral damage to our town's franchise.''-- Matt, St. Paul, Minn.
Folks in the league office read this column, so your voice has just been heard.
TOO HARSH, IMO. "What better way to punish the Saints than by going the college football route and imposing a one-year playoff ban on them, the way NCAA gives bowl bans? Imagine if the Saints were banned from the playoffs the year that the Super Bowl is in New Orleans. Could you think of a better message to send to the rest of the league?''-- Mike, St. Louis
That's going too far, but you're not the first person to suggest it.
CHRIS THINKS WE'RE OVERPLAYING THE STORY. "Peter, this Saints thing seems to be overblown to me. Not saying it's right, but when have defenses NOT tried to knock people out of the game? Everybody knows the more you hit a QB the worse he plays. This seems like it should be more of an officiating issue to me. You can say whatever you want in the locker room, but you still have to go out and do it in front of the refs. Where were the flags when Favre was getting blasted on every play?''-- Chris, Denver
The difference, of course, is that an off-the-books bonus was offered, in cash, according to the NFL, for anyone who would knock Favre out of the game.
COUNT THIS FAN OUTRAGED. "The bounty issue is a big deal, and it needs to be stopped in it's tracks. I don't want to hear any "every team does it" [nonsense]. I think the NFL should take back the Saints Super Bowl Trophy. I think Gregg Williams should be banned for life. Sean Payton should be banned for one year, as should Mickey Loomis. The Saints should be docked four first round draft picks, and fined $10 million. Payton and Loomis should be fined $500,000 each, and every active player involved should be suspended for four games and fined $50,000. This crap needs to stop and the NFL needs to demand that it does.''-- John Newman, Northglenn, Colo.
Whoa. You're quite the hanging judge. But I'm glad to see some fans are outraged by this. I think you all should be.
INTERESTING POINT FROM BRENT. "Please explain something to me Peter, because I have a few observations on the Saints situation. Would the penalties be any different if no money was offered? I mean, were the players really going out there to knock Brett Favre out of the game for $10,000, or were they trying to knock him out of the game so they could win? Is there any real difference? What I have yet to hear is a player saying they were trying to injure someone just for the money. And if there were any illegal hits, weren't those players already fined? Can the league really punish them again?''-- Brent, Midland, Texas
Good email, Brent. There's a difference, I think, in going out and trying to pulverize the quarterback within the rules and going out when you've been offered a bounty to try to injure the quarterback and knock him out of the game. As for your double jeopardy opinion, I think it's a good question ... but I believe all bets are off when you add bounties and pocket cash to the motivation for the plays that led to the fines in the first place.
WILLIAMS SHOULD BE BANNED. "Huge, massive fan of your column. I always go out of my way to read your work. I would like to make a quick observation of the bounty program of the Saints. To hear names such as Favre and Warner being targeted is extremely upsetting. I am a N.Y. Giants fan, but I love football in general. To know that such amazing players were targeted. and now I, as a fan, have missed out on opportunities to see them in action as well as their careers and personal well being has been effect is absolutely horrific. I cannot recall any instances where something done within in sport has upset me so and I think it may forever affect my views on football going forward. Gregg Williams should be banned from coaching football. He is no different then a mob boss trying to take out hits on his competition. I sincerely hope the commissioner hands out penalties so great to all others involved that there will never again be any doubt that behavior such as this should never happen again.''-- Richard Hayner, Kingston, N.Y.
Thanks for your kind words, Richard. And your opinions are duly noted.
SAINTS FAN SPEAKS OUT. "Is it fair to punish Saints "fans" on this? It is very similar to college players and fans get penalized with probation because of what one or a few coaches/players did. Gregg Williams is gone. Good! Remi Ayodele is gone. Good! Anthony Hargrove is gone. Good! Jonathan Vilma should be gone. Sean Payton (dare I say it) should be gone. That's all fair and just. However, taking away draft picks is only going to hurt the loyal, sincere, Saints fans. We feel helpless, angry and betrayed here, but don't punish US!''-- Michael, Madisonville, La.
Excellent point. But I feel the draft pick part of this has to be done ... because you need to give the Saints, and the other 31 teams in the league, significant motivation to be sure that this bounty practice is eradicated across the league.
THE MEDIA SHOULD HAVE KNOWN. "I mean no disrespect. In your reporting on the NFL you come into close contact with many players, coaches and front office suits. It's just a little hard to believe that you, or other NFL writers, haven't heard of, or at least suspected, the bounty issues before. I'm sure there is a tightrope walked with the media on reporting on such things and trying to keep lines of communication open towards NFL personnel. Are there things you reporters hear yet do not, or cannot, report on? I know you need proof and such to report but it just seems like there is this dirty underbelly within the NFL in which many players are coming out now saying that this isn't news in their circles.''-- Florian Kubes, Montreal
Excellent question. I am almost embarrassed I haven't heard more about this stuff over the years, especially because I have been around the Saints a lot. But as this story has unfolded, I think you've noticed a wall of silence. Milquetoast, almost obligatory comment from the owner. Nothing from the coach. Nothing from the GM. Nothing from the assistant coaches. Nothing from 51 of the 53 players. When you have a secret you want to have kept, you do everything you can to keep it. That's how Williams and the players acted, obviously.