By Peter King
March 02, 2012

The National Football League on Friday found the New Orleans Saints guilty of a wide-ranging system of bounty payments to between 22 and 27 defensive players from 2009 through 2011, and player-safety-conscious commissioner Roger Goodell could bring the hammer down very hard on the franchise.

The most alarming finding by the league, according to one club source who was briefed on the investigation late Friday afternoon, was this: Before the 2009 NFC Championship Game, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered any defensive teammate $10,000 in cash to knock then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the game. Favre was hit viciously several times in the game. Favre told Friday evening: "I'm not pissed. It's football. I don't think anything less of those guys."

The details of Vilma's offer were in a report to the 32 NFL owners, sent out by the league to detail further what the league's 50,000-page investigation found.

Early indications late Friday afternoon were that the sanctions against the Saints and their former defensive coordinator who the league said administered the bounties, Gregg Williams, will be severe. The league said the penalties could include suspensions, fines and loss of draft choices -- the latter of which could be particularly damaging to the Saints, who do not own a first-round pick this year. Their first choice will be late in the second round, the 59th overall ... unless Goodell takes the pick away.

Goodell is angry about this sustained use of paying players to hurt players on other teams. There's little doubt the penalties on the Saints will be worse than what the league did to the Patriots for the Spygate scandal in 2007. Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 and the franchise fined $250,000 and docked a first-round draft choice for videotaping opponents' signals during games in violation of league rules. It would not be surprising, judging by the seriousness of the findings, that Williams, recently hired as the defensive coordinator of the Rams, would face a multi-game suspension.

At 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Williams issued an apology: "I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. Benson, and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the 'pay for performance' program while I was with the Saints," Williams said. "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again."

A stern Goodell and a team of NFL officials -- league counsel Jeff Pash and NFL Security officials who headed up the investigation -- summoned Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis to New York Thursday to inform them of the seriousness of the investigation. Then Pash flew to New Orleans Thursday night to brief Saints owner Tom Benson.

Payton, the league says, was not "a direct participant'' in the bounty program but was aware of it and did nothing to stop it. Loomis could be in more trouble. The league claims Loomis was told by Benson to stop the program and didn't.

The league said there was an initial investigation, after the 2009 season, into a bounty system led by Williams that could not be corroborated. Then, Goodell said "significant and credible'' new information was forthcoming late in the 2011 season that led to the findings the league acted on Friday. Those conclusions found that Saints players were paid off-the-books incentives for some outstanding performances such as interceptions -- obviously in violation of the league's salary cap -- as well as $1,000 and $1,500 payments for injuring opposing players.

"The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for performance, but also for injuring opposing players," Goodell said in a league statement Friday afternoon. The bounty rule, Goodell said, protects "two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it."

The league, led by director of investigative services Joe Hummel and chief league security officer Jeff Miller, discovered these violations:

• Players pooled their own money to fund the bounty club, and players were paid $1,500 if a foe was knocked out of the game, and $1,000 if an opponent was carted off the field.

• Between 22 and 27 players contributed to the bounty pool over a three-year period, with amounts guaranteed if a certain opposing player was knocked out of the game.

• Williams occasionally reached into his own pocket to contribute to the bounty pool.

• Benson said when he was informed of the new and credible evidence that the bounty program was going strong after the 2011 season, he directed Loomis to make sure the program ceased. "There is no evidence that Mr. Loomis took any effective action to stop these practices,'' the league's statement said.

Surprisingly, the biggest target of the bounties, Favre, wasn't upset about the news when reached Friday night. He said bounties are a part of the game. "Said or unsaid, guys do it anyway," Favre said. "If they can drill you and get you out [of the game], they will."

Since mid-2010, when a spate of head injuries ratcheted up the NFL's attention to player safety, Goodell has been nearly manic about player safety. The league has heavily fined players for excessive and late hits on players, and Goodell's relationship with many prominent players in the league has been radically affected because of it. That's why the penalties in this case will be significantly more severe -- almost certainly -- than what was levied on the Patriots four seasons ago. It's hard enough for players to stay on the field in the first place, never mind when a team is purposely trying to injure them.

That's why you can expect Goodell to issue the most severe penalties of his six-year reign on the Saints as soon as late this month. Players will be watching this case closely, particularly heavily fined players like James Harrison. If Williams gets away without a six-figure fine plus suspension, players will think Goodell is softer on the ringleaders than the players.

Messages to Williams, Payton and Loomis were not immediately returned to Friday afternoon. Saints owner Tom Benson issued this statement: "I have been made aware of the NFL's findings relative to the 'Bounty Rule' and how it relates to our club. I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation. While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans."

It could be a while, a long while, before the findings, as Benson calls them, can be put behind the Saints.

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