Born in the same year as the NFL's ultimate game, the New Orleans Saints waited more than four decades to reach the Super Bowl and play on football's grandest stage. And when those then-inspirational 2009 Saints won their showdown against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in South Florida, they reveled in and celebrated their victory like no team and its long-suffering fan base had ever done before.
But today, consider the cost of that victory, and the hangover effect that is now being felt in terms of that Super Bowl team's legacy. Because of the bounty program that was put in place that season by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and at least condoned by head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, this year's Saints have seen their dreams of playing next season's Super Bowl in their very own Superdome virtually ended before the start of spring.
That's has to be one of the clear bottom-line assessments when it comes to the impact of the bounty program penalties handed down Wednesday to the Saints by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. In a judgment of unprecedented scope, Payton was suspended without pay for one year, Williams was put on indefinite suspension and Loomis was suspended for eight games, with a loss of $500,000 due to missed salary or fines added to his penalty. Assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt was docked six games, with the franchise itself being fined $500,000 and forced to forfeit a second-round pick in 2012 and 2013.
The Saints will be playing football this season, but it's almost impossible to view New Orleans as the Super Bowl contender many thought it'd be in 2012. Not after this self-inflicted storm has engulfed the franchise, perhaps costing it even more long-term damage than the Saints suffered due to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during their nomadic, lost season of 2005.
There are still so many questions about the structure of the coaching staff that must be answered before Payton's suspension begins April 1, and we don't even know yet what combination of suspension and/or fines will be forthcoming for some or all of the 20-plus players who reportedly were involved in the bounty pool over the course of 2009-2011.
But this much is clear: In 2012, these will not be the Saints we've grown familiar with in the past six years, since Payton was hired and quarterback Drew Brees took over the team's offense. That team just disappeared in some very tangible ways, and it's too early to know if it will ever be reassembled.
The Saints story may eventually prompt a discussion and debate about the far-reaching powers of the NFL commissioner's office, and whether or not the penalties meted out by Goodell went too far for the league's own good in impacting New Orleans' competitiveness this season. Time will tell if the Saints are able to adapt to such a sweeping new reality, and still maintain their place as one of the NFL's most successful franchises. But I don't think those concerns were much on Goodell's mind Wednesday.
I think the commissioner brought the hammer down on New Orleans, exceeding almost everyone's expectations of punishment, because the player safety issue has become synonymous with his name and reputation, and has come to dominate the direction he sees his office and the league heading. Player safety has become the central tenet of the Goodell administration, and for better or for worse, he believes it's his job to continue taking the game down that road.
"I don't think you can be too hard on people that put at risk our players' health and safety,'' said Goodell in a Wednesday afternoon interview on NFL Network. "That is a critical issue for us going forward and has been in our past.'' Later, Goodell added: "The game doesn't need to be played this way. We need to change the culture [of the game]. This is another statement toward changing the culture.''
It is Goodell's toughest and most forceful statement yet, and it will forever leave a mark on the Saints organization, not to mention partially stain the careers of Payton, Williams and Loomis. In varying degrees, this will be virtually unchartered territory for those three, and we'll have to see the fallout their reputations suffer after they've served their punishments.
Like many, I'm most surprised that Payton's penalty was twice as harsh as the one Loomis received, given that the Saints GM was the team's highest-ranking official who knew about the bounty program, and yet did little or nothing to stop it. But let's be frank about this: Goodell doesn't like to be lied to, and he feels Payton, more than anyone else involved in New Orleans, stonewalled and covered up when the league went looking for answers.
In short, the league found that Payton, as early on as spring of 2010, could have done much to mitigate the damage and potential ramifications of the team's 2009 bounty program, but instead chose to ignore the league's initial questioning and brazenly continue on with the program Williams put in place. For two additional years.
"Clearly, we were lied to,'' Goodell said on NFL Network. "We investigated this back in 2010, we were told it was not happening, [and] it continued for another two years. This went on for three years and it was investigated, we were misled, and there were denials throughout that period. Meanwhile, there continued to be risk to our players and to the integrity of our game. So it calls for a very significant and clear message.''
While Payton is said to be "stunned'' by the length of his suspension without pay (which will cost him more than $7 million in yearly salary), any appeal he might choose to file before April 2 would be heard by Goodell, the same judge and jury he just got sentenced by. That's not a promising option, or well-spent time or energy. As for legal options, the standard NFL coaching contract is pretty air-tight on that front. You give up your right to sue the league and agree to be disciplined by the commissioner's office as a stipulation of employment. Add it all up and the penalties Goodell passed out Wednesday aren't likely to be changed or lessened.
In announcing the penalties, the league recapped much of the same information it released on March 2, when it announces the existence of its investigation into the Saints' alleged bounty program. But a few new nuggets did emerge::
-- "Assistant head coach Joe Vitt acknowledged that he was aware of the (bounty) program in 2009-2011. He admitted that, when interviewed in early 2010, he 'fabricated the truth' to NFL investigators and denied that any pay for performance or bounty program existed at the Saints.''
-- "Coach Vitt said that one of his primary roles was to monitor the activity of Coach (Gregg) Williams. He did so at the direction of Coach Payton, who apparently had less than full confidence in Coach Williams. Despite Coach Vitt's knowledge of the bounty program, his understanding of the terms 'knock-out' and 'cart-off,' his witnessing Coach Williams handing out envelopes that he believed to contain cash, and his acknowledgement that the defensive meeting preceding the 2010 NFC Championship game may have 'got out of hand' with respect to Brett Favre, Coach Vitt claimed that he never advised Coach Payton or General Manager Mickey Loomis of the pay for performance/bounty program.''
-- "A summary prepared following a Saints' preseason game included the statement, 'Cart-off - Crank up the John Deer (sic) Tractor' in reference to a hit on an opposing player. Similar statements are reflected in documents or slides prepared in connection with other games. A review of the game films confirms that opposing players were injured on the plays identified in the documents.''
-- "Coach Williams acknowledged that he designed and implemented the pay for performance/bounty program with the assistance of certain defensive players. Coach Williams did so after being told by Saints head coach Sean Payton that his assignment was to make the Saints' defense 'nasty.' Coach Williams described his role as overseeing record-keeping, defining payout amounts, deciding who received payouts, and distributing envelopes containing cash to players who 'earned' rewards.''
The desire to field a "nasty'' defense in New Orleans apparently not only prompted Williams to push the envelope, but to fill it with cash and hand it out to one of his players on occasion. From Vitt's "fabricating the truth,'' to Payton's request that Vitt keep an eye on Williams, thereby signaling that he had his own concerns about how far his defensive coordinator was willing to go, the scene in New Orleans, as painted by league investigators, was not a pretty one.
And now Goodell has ruled, and harshly. The player safety issue and the disregard the Saints showed for it is the grievous sin that was committed in the eyes of the league. But the illegal cash payments, repeated denials, involvement of coaches and players in a bounty pool, and the lack of institutional control exhibited by a general manager and head coach combined to bring out the lower the boom aspect to Goodell's authority.
The intent of the penalties, Goodell wrote, was to send a "strong and lasting message that will make clear such conduct is unacceptable and has no place in the NFL.'' As messages go, it was powerfully strong. How lasting the impact is in New Orleans is a question that can't yet be answered. But the 2012 Saints will feel it, and dramatically so.
Perhaps some in New Orleans would say the 2009 Super Bowl victory was worth it all, even if that year's title now carries some taint. But any shot the Saints had to make history and play in next year's Super Bowl at home probably disappeared on Wednesday, when the Saints first learned at least part of the price of their mistakes. In New Orleans, the pain is now being felt instead of dished out.