The Saints' bounty scandal is a saga with multiple moving parts and tentacles that reach in many directions across the NFL landscape. New Orleans might represent ground zero in the story, but the impact of the Saints' pay-for-pain affair will reverberate throughout the league, with some of the principle figures involved now with other organizations and other teams being drawn into the investigation by virtue of their past links to former New Orleans defensive coordinator and bounty pool organizer Gregg Williams.
Here are 10 snapshot looks at the various and widespread tributaries that flow from the Saints' bounty scandal:
• What do the Rams do about the potential loss of their new defensive coordinator? I think it's more than fair to say that Gregg Williams' reputation has officially preceded him to St. Louis. And then some. With Williams in line for a league suspension of some sort this season -- anywhere from four games to the entire year seems plausible -- the Rams are in limbo to some degree when it comes to the remaking of their defense in 2012.
Fortunately for St. Louis, the cupboard is far from bare in terms of potential short-term replacements for Williams on staff. Assistant head coach Dave McGinnis has defensive coordinator experience in the league, as does new Rams head coach Jeff Fisher himself. Even Rams defensive backs head coach Chuck Cecil is a former Titans defensive coordinator.
It is somewhat unchartered territory for the league to penalize uninvolved teams, but in this particular case, there may be no other recourse for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Williams started and organized the Saints' bounty pool, and it's just bad timing on behalf of the Rams that they hired him shortly before the league completed its investigation of New Orleans, which put the veteran assistant coach at the epicenter of the controversy.
The larger question is whether Williams will emerge from the scandal as severely damaged goods, and possibly make the Rams re-think their commitment to him in any way? Williams and Fisher are old friends who go back all the way to their days together on the staff in Houston with the Oilers of the early-to-mid-90s, so the bonds are strong. But both Fisher and Williams have ties to former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan, who is kind of the NFL's Godfather of bounty-pool football, and that could make things all the more uncomfortable in St. Louis if any revelations surface regarding Williams and Fisher having run a similar bounty program when they were together in Houston and Tennessee from 1994-2000.
I wouldn't lay odds that Fisher and St. Louis walk away from Williams once he has served a league suspension, but you can't entirely predict his fate until the outcome of any further NFL investigations are known.
• Will the league figure out a way to penalize teams that might have had a similar bounty pool program under Williams, but that took place years ago with few if any of the involved parties still on hand? I'm not sure what the statute of limitations is concerning NFL bounty pools, and that makes the issue of how to potentially discipline teams like the Redskins, Bills or Titans for similar transgressions a thorny one indeed.
I'll make a prediction: The league just spent parts of three years investigating the Saints bounty program, and wants to clearly send a message that this kind of activity must stop right now, at this crucial pivot point. A culture change regarding all pay-for-performance thinking is what the NFL seeks.
But it won't be possible to go back so far retroactively and make whatever, if anything, happened in Washington, Buffalo or Tennessee on par with what was taking place in New Orleans the past three years. Maybe a token fine could be levied against those franchises for not being more vigilant regarding league rules against bounties, but I can't see the penalties extending much past that. It's likely too difficult a knot to untangle at this point.
• Which Saints offensive assistant stands to increase his profile if the league suspends New Orleans head coach Sean Payton for his lack of oversight in the bounty scandal? Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. is the logical candidate to fill the void created by Payton's absence in terms of the team's play-calling and game-planning duties, just as he did so capably last season after Payton was injured in a Week 6 sideline collision at Tampa Bay.
Carmichael is one of the league's brighter young offensive coaching stars, and he did so well in his pinch-hitting duties in 2011 that Payton let him continue calling the plays even once he was healthy enough to return to the sideline on game days in mid-November. With quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints offense in a record-setting mode last season, it's little wonder that Carmichael's name surfaced in connection with head coaching vacancies in both Miami and Indianapolis earlier this year.
With a league suspension of some length thought likely for Payton, Carmichael will step back to the forefront in some greater than expected capacity in 2012. How he fares in an enhanced leadership role will further define the trajectory of his future NFL career, and perhaps greatly impact the fortunes of a Saints team that has made the playoffs an NFC-best three years in a row (tied with Green Bay).
• How does recently hired Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo like his new gig so far? It's hard to know if the fired Rams head coach had any inkling of what was coming in New Orleans when he took the job of replacing Williams and switched cities with the former Saints DC, but my guess is no. I wouldn't expect Spagnuolo to be holding any press conferences to discuss what he knew and when he knew it, but I've got a hunch the bounty pool program and subsequent league investigation wasn't a big part of his interview process with Payton and the Saints front office.
The reality is this: With a reported seven Saints defensive starters having been with the team in all three seasons of the bounty program (2009-2011), and player suspensions possible, there's a very good chance Spagnuolo will be dealing with a shorthanded defensive roster at some point in 2012. I can't see the league hitting New Orleans with those suspension all at once, leaving the Saints unable to compete, so it'll likely be a staggered schedule of absences. But that's still no picnic to deal with in your first year on the job, even if Spagnuolo's injury-decimated Rams of last season gave him something of a trial run in terms of cutting and pasting a roster together.
• Can the Saints afford to lose draft picks as part of their penalty for the bounty scandal? Not this year. Not when they're already without the first-round pick they traded to New England last April, for the right to select Alabama running back Mark Ingram 28th overall.
The timing is poor to get hit on the draft front, because the Saints entered the offseason with more high-profile free agents than they can afford to re-sign, and that means the draft was going to play an important role in addressing some needs. It still might, but at the moment, with Drew Brees franchised and guard Carl Nicks and receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem headed for unrestricted free agency, New Orleans is in a bit of a bind.
The Saints don't make their first pick until the second round, 59th overall. If that's taken away by the league, it'll be the 90th overall selection, in the third round, until we hear New Orleans mentioned on draft weekend. The Saints then have a fourth-rounder, a fifth, two sixths and a seventh in the remainder of the draft. The depth of their roster could suffer depending on how far the NFL goes in taking away 2012 picks, with the unfortunate timing of the Brees contract issue only furthering the potential talent drain this year.
• How will the impact of the Saints' controversy be felt in the AFC North? Current Browns linebacker Scott Fujita played for the Super Bowl champion Saints in 2009, and in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated he admitted contributing bounty funds in New Orleans. Fujita makes the distinction that it was money out of his own pocket to teammates for making big plays, and not to injure opposing players, but I don't think the NFL will see a clear difference in regards to the legality of his contributions.
That could leave Fujita in line for a suspension, and thus the Browns defensive lineup could be negatively impacted, presumably early in the year.
• How will the NFL Players Association factor into the Saints scandal, given that it has a duty to help protect the safety of players, but from other players who wanted to injure them in this case? The NFLPA has been mostly quiet so far in the early days of the Saints saga, other than issuing a statement on Friday saying health and safety is paramount to the organization, and that it is in the process of reviewing the NFL's investigation/report of the Saints.
When the NFLPA does weigh in, it's expected that it'll line up in defense of the players on all fronts, both those who were targeted by bounties and those who did the targeting. The thinking? Players like Fujita were doing what they were told by coaches, who organized and led the efforts to put a monetary value on both big plays and "kill shots'' that injured opponents and knocked them out of games. The logic might be that players were following the dictates of coaches who saw those measures as part of doing whatever it takes to win. The union will no doubt also welcome any measures taken by the NFL to eliminate such practices from the game, thereby making it safer.
• How will NFL coaches in general react to the stiff penalties that are expected to be handed down from the league in response to the Saints' bounty pool? Starting perhaps in this spring's minicamps, you can bet that head coaches around the league will walk into their first defensive meeting of the year and say a version of the following:
"I don't want to know anything specific, but if anybody on this team is involved in anything like a bounty program, from this moment forward it ends. If it doesn't, and I find out about it, you're fired if you're a coach, and cut if you're a player. We're not risking just league fines any more. We're risking suspensions and we're risking the forfeiture of draft choices. And I'm not losing any draft picks over this kind of extra-motivation tactics.''
• What can we expect from the relationship between Sean Payton and the league office going forward in light of the Saints' scandal? It's an interesting question to pose, because some within the league see the potential for Payton to be this generation's Al Davis, perhaps filling the now-vacated role of Official Thorn in the League's Side, with Davis gone.
Payton will almost certainly survive this low point in his New Orleans tenure, and reportedly still has the full support of Saints owner Tom Benson. But how he deals with whatever penalties the league hands down in the coming weeks, and how accountable he is for the scandal having occurred on his watch, could go a long way toward shaping his reputation as he enters the prime of his NFL head coaching career.
At some point, Payton and the Saints will likely part ways, and he'll be back in the market looking for his next head coaching job. The NFL team owners who now might be unhappy with the news of how extensive his team's bounty pool program became will be perhaps the very group he's trying to impress as a job candidate. His won-loss record will no doubt speak loudest, but his track record for inviting a bit of controversy and having things done the Payton Way will also be part of the story as well. He is, after all, a disciple of Bill Parcells.
• Is the Saints' controversy a story destined to drown out all else for a couple weeks or so, but then flame out quickly? Don't think so. Commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to issue his disciplinary verdict at some point before the NFL's annual meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., convenes on March 25. That will keep the story firmly in the headlines until those penalties come, and then the Saints will proceed into the offseason with a cloud that looms over their 2012 season.
New Orleans, of course, has a bit of a stage this coming NFL season. Not only are the Saints involved in the league's first game of the year, playing the Cardinals in the Aug. 5 Hall of Fame Game in Canton, the organization will play host to the NFL's final game of the season, too: Super Bowl XLVII in the renovated Superdome on Feb. 3, 2013. Those will be spotlight opportunities for the Saints, and it's hard to imagine their season won't be continually cast amidst the backdrop of the bounty pool scandal. One way or another, get ready to hear plenty about the Saints this year.