What's next in Saints' bounty saga?
While the NFL's busy free-agent signing period and Peyton Manning's Magical Mystery Tour continue to dominate the headlines this week, still looming in the background is the pending outcome of the Saints' bounty scandal. League commissioner Roger Goodell has yet to mete out disciplinary measures to the coaches, players and team front-office executive identified two weeks ago as being either aware of or directly involved in the illegal pay-for-performance program that New Orleans operated from 2009-2011.
Penalties are coming at some point in the near future, but here's an update on the story and where we think things stand at the moment:
While some media reports said the Rams expected to know the fate of ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, their current defensive coordinator, this week, that timetable will not be met. The available indications still point to Goodell opting to hand down his entire ruling for all parties involved some time next week, before the league's annual meeting unfolds the following week in Palm Beach, Fla., March 25-27.
Some unforeseen occurrence could conceivably push Goodell's timetable past the league meeting, but the league would rather come out of Palm Beach with this boil already lanced, and the Saints bounty story resolved and put to bed. In addition, if the penalties still haven't been announced by the time the meeting convenes, a media circus atmosphere likely will exist in Palm Beach for Saints owner Tom Benson, GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, all of whom would normally attend the event. The NFL would prefer to skip that particular sideshow.
No one seems to know for certain, but it's thought that Goodell hasn't fully made up his mind yet. He's playing his decision very close to the vest, with no real information leaking from the league office or elsewhere. He probably has parameters in his head regarding possible suspensions, fines and forfeiture of draft picks, but hard numbers aren't being floated like trial balloons.
In a side note, I'm sure the NFL would prefer the perfect-world scenario in which it avoided making its announcement before Peyton Manning unveils his eagerly awaited decision on a new team, in order to not rain on No. 18's parade and put those two stories in stark juxtaposition in the headlines.
See? Even the NFL and Goodell waits on Peyton.
Not really. The league can't compel Williams, Payton, Loomis or Benson to cooperate and talk to the players union for its independent investigation, and why exactly would the principals involved want to? What's the benefit for them in doing so, since the CBA spells out that the commissioner's office holds the power to investigate and impose discipline in cases such as this? The union has no authority to decide the fate of team officials or coaches.
The union obviously can investigate and question some of the 22-27 Saints players named in the league report, but it is not thought that it has made any wide-scale effort to speak to the players involved, instead building its investigative hopes on talking with Williams, Payton and Loomis. While the league is said to have discussed its investigation with the NFLPA, it is not taking the union's request for its own investigation too seriously, considering it a posturing maneuver that even the union knows has little hope of coming to fruition.
The bottom line is that the CBA grants Goodell the authority to determine the penalties that will be meted out to the coaches, team officials and players involved, and the union doesn't have any way to make the Saints' hierarchy speak to them or the power to enforce any different findings that may turn up in a separate investigation. So what exactly would a union investigation be accomplishing, other than making the entire inquiry look more collaborative for appearances sake?
There has been little or no legitimate discussion of a lifetime ban for Williams or anyone else involved within the league office. It is not even seen as a punishment that could be enforced from a practical or legal standpoint, even if it could be accomplished in effect by suspending him for a year, with the Rams firing him for cause and no other team ever re-hiring him. The league will not invite a legal challenge by attaching such an open-ended term to any suspension Williams might incur.
It's guesswork at this point, and merely an attempt to read Goodell's mind, but anywhere from eight games to a full season seems to be the likely range of Williams' suspension. St. Louis could very well opt to terminate him for cause if he's forced to miss an entire season, so I see that as the less likely option for Goodell to choose. Though he originally stonewalled NFL security about the existence of a bounty program, Williams did help himself in the league's eyes by being the first Saints employee to come clean about the illegal cash pool, take responsibility for its existence, and call it a mistake.
As much as the league is expected to come down hard on Williams for masterminding the whole operation, Goodell is thought to be just as concerned about the reality that the Saints organization knew the league suspected and tried to investigate the existence of a bounty program in early 2010, but brazenly kept right on operating it for another two seasons.
Particularly disturbing to the league is that flouting of the rules the Saints engaged in, with their willingness to ignore the good of the other 31 NFL clubs and target opposing players for injury or being knocked out of games. That the Saints didn't at least scale back the bounty program once the league began hearing of it in 2010 is one thing, but that it continued on, full-steam ahead with the pay-for-pain system that Williams employed, is something that Goodell feels makes a mockery of the league's multi-leveled attempts to increase player safety.
For those reasons, some observers believe it's possible the penalties Loomis and Payton receive won't be much less than what Williams gets. Again, just reading the tea leaves, I would put the possible length of suspensions at four to eight games for Loomis and Payton, with perhaps the commissioner's intent to not cut too deeply into the Saints' ability to be competitive in the 2012 season influencing him to go toward the lighter end of that range, at least for Payton.
One potential scenario would call for Loomis to get a longer suspension than the Saints head coach -- perhaps at least a half season -- on the rationale that he was the highest-ranking team official with knowledge of the bounty program, and thus bears more accountability in the eyes of the league. That Loomis and Payton 10 days ago issued a statement acknowledging the bounty program and taking responsibility helped them to a certain degree in terms of lessening the potential discipline, but their mea culpa came only after repeated denials about their awareness of a bounty pool from early 2010 on. That pattern of deception will be weighed alongside the eagerness the Saints organization has shown in recent days to take its medicine and put the scandal in the past.
Fines and suspensions will be forthcoming, but it's thought likely there will be many more players fined than suspended. The players, after all, were acting on the direction of Williams, even if they did enthusiastically embrace his bounty program. The notable exception might be Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who allegedly offered his defensive teammates a $10,000 cash bounty for knocking Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC title game. Vilma isn't expected to be the only Saints player suspended, but nothing but anecdotal information has surfaced so far linking any player to payments to or rewards from the bounty pool.