The NFL will investigate any information that sheds light on whether other teams might have had a bounty program similar to the one the Saints ran the past three seasons, but sources say the potential broadening of the league's inquiry will not soften the focus on New Orleans or any forthcoming disciplinary measures headed its way.
In other words, the everybody-does-it defense may not aid the Saints whatsoever.
In fact, three days after the NFL revealed the existence of the Saints' illegal pay-for-performance program by press release on Friday afternoon, the league's spotlight remains firmly trained on the New Orleans organization, even as the silence from Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton grows deafening.
While ex-Saints defensive coordinator and bounty program organizer Gregg Williams met again with league investigators on Monday in New York, somewhere outside the NFL's office -- presumably to answer questions about media reports that there was some sort of a bounty system on at least three other teams he previously worked for -- Loomis and Payton have yet to be heard from or make any public statement. No denials. No acknowledgments. No explanations or apologies added to the one made by Williams on Friday afternoon, when he took responsibility for running the Saints' bounty pool of up to $50,000, calling it "a terrible mistake,'' and later adding "we knew we were wrong while we were doing it.''
If league investigators indeed uncover evidence that bounty pools once existed in some form on other teams, and media reports over the weekend linked Williams' name to such revelations in Washington, Buffalo and Tennessee, where he coached before coming to the Saints in 2009, he will have further damaged himself in the eyes of an NFL office that is both image-conscious and determined to press the issue of greater player safety within the game.
But the league sees the Saints investigation, which was three years in the making, as something more far-reaching than just Williams' involvement, viewing it as a widespread and institutional issue that went on far too long and was too prevalent for Loomis and Payton to credibly claim ignorance or a lack of understanding of the ramifications of the bounty pool.
And apparently the longer Loomis and Payton remain silent on the issue, choosing to not address the bounty controversy, the more the league views their position as one of trying to isolate Williams as the sole culprit in the burgeoning scandal, limiting the perception of their own involvement.
The broad outline of New Orleans' organizational defense is said to roughly claim that Williams acted in concert with his defensive players, that Loomis and Payton weren't sufficiently aware of the bounty pool and its intentions, and that once the Saints leadership grasped the situation they got rid of Williams, allowing him to join the new staff of his good friend, Jeff Fisher, in St. Louis, rather than firing him outright. In that scenario, Loomis and Payton were victims of a veteran coordinator who was given a certain sense of autonomy on the Saints staff, with disastrous results for the organization.
The league said its report on the Saints bounty pool has been corroborated by multiple and independent sources, on a scope and a scale that makes its case against New Orleans' breaking of NFL rules difficult to refute. If the league can prove from credible sources that other teams in the past have internally employed such financial rewards for making big plays and/or injuring opponents -- and some former members of the Redskins and Bills say their teams had such bounty pools -- the NFL will have no choice but to pursue those facts wherever they might lead.
How to discipline teams retroactively when the illegal activity is so far in the past is a trickier component of such further investigations. At some point, those inquiries could produce penalties that simply don't make sense in light of current realities, or appear to be examples of overreaching and PR-inspired actions by the league office.
But for now, the Saints remain squarely at the forefront of this scandal, and the league is expected in the coming two-to-three weeks to hand down significant and severe disciplinary measures that likely will include suspensions, fines and the loss of draft picks. In the league's view, the Saints' illegalities were extensive, and will be matched by the punishment.