Goodell upset with Saints' cover-up as much as illegal bounty program
PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from the first full day of the NFL's annual meetings at that bastion of old money, The Breakers hotel...
There were plenty of interesting takeaways from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's media session at the end of Monday's portion of the league's annual meeting. Among them:
• So it was the cover-up as much as the crime that helped convince Goodell to bring the hammer down so hard on the New Orleans Saints, and not just the fact that they organized and executed a bounty program to begin with. The commish admitted as much here Monday evening, saying his harsh set of penalties was at least in part due to the Saints continuing to lie about the bounty program even as recently as earlier this month.
"It's a violation of a very serious rule,'' Goodell said. "We have made player health and safety very clear as a priority. I have addressed it with owners, head coaches, general managers and all of our personnel several times a year. When this first was raised over two years ago, there were denials. They frankly were not forthright with what was happening. And that continued, and it continued even through our investigation into the past several weeks. So it's a serious violation of our policy. It's something that has zero tolerance in the NFL. It's not acceptable to hide the issues, continue to violate the NFL policy, put our players at risk. That's going to be dealt with very harshly.''
• The Saints were in serious denial about their illegal program, even after league investigators visited them the day before their first-round playoff game against Detroit, telling New Orleans the league had new and credible information about the allegations of a bounty program. Goodell admitted he doesn't know if the Saints even made their bounty program cease and desist at that point.
"Our point was if there is one, you better make sure it's not in effect because we're continuing our investigation.''
• In something of a role reversal, almost like a reporter would, Goodell told the media the league had "several sources'' regarding the Saints' bounty program. He did so in response to questions about how he felt about NFL Network analyst Warren Sapp last week going on the league's network to finger ex-Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey as the "snitch'' who turned the Saints in.
Goodell said Sapp's information was "inaccurate,'' and said the assumption that a player stepped forward with the information may be incorrect as well, given there were more than one source. In addition, Goodell said it was up to the NFL Network to penalize Sapp in any way, but that he would issue a ruling if the decision arrived on his desk.
• Don't know if his apology hit the same kind of home run in the room that Robert Kraft did at this same hotel in 2008, after his Patriots were caught in the Spygate scandal, but Saints owner Tom Benson did his part to show contrition Monday, apologizing to his fellow 31 owners for the sins of Gregg Williams, Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Co.
"He was very open with the clubs,'' Goodell said of Benson. "He expressed his disappointment that this occurred. He made it clear that this was not what he was about.''
That's a start, I guess. But just like Bill Belichick had to take his medicine at the league's annual meeting in 2008, the big headline would be if Saints head coach Sean Payton goes even further on the mea culpa front here on Tuesday or Wednesday. Maybe Saints general manager Mickey Loomis could find his forgive-me voice and chime in a bit, too.
• The NFL knows there have been other pay-for-performance issues around the league, but says none of the others it has looked into have the same width and breadth of the Saints' program, and that the league can't find another one that specifically targeted the injuring of opposing players.
Goodell said the league's investigation hasn't ended, but it also doesn't sound like it's active either.
"We have not closed the investigation,'' Goodell said. "If we get information, we follow up on it. We have not said anyone has a free pass here.
"I think it's fair to say that non-contract bonus payments have been happening throughout the league more frequently than we would like, and that is going to be discontinued.''
• Goodell is still playing it smart, and cautious, in regards to potential Saints player suspensions. He can talk as tough as he wants when it comes to suspending Williams, Payton and Loomis, but he knows he needs the NFLPA on board to some degree when it comes to the players.
He said he would like to issue his player penalties "as soon as reasonable,'' but would like to get a recommendation from the players association by the "end of the week.''
Goodell added that he has heard from "dozens of players privately,'' without disclosing which way their feedback leaned. My guess is he would not have referenced that feedback if it was not largely positive in reaction to his suspensions of Saints club officials last week.
• Many of the rule proposals that will be considered here by team owners seem to be generating widespread positive reviews, with one notable exception: I don't sense any enthusiasm at all for the Buffalo Bills' proposal to take the job of deciding instant replay reviews away from the game referee and give it to the official in the replay booth.
In fact, I think idea is pretty much dead in the water after polling a few head coaches and general managers on Monday.
"I don't think that proposal will pass,'' one NFC head coach told me. "I don't think it has much of a shot.''
Said an AFC head coach: "No way, let's keep it on the field. I don't want there to be some unknown entity up there, who's not accountable to anybody and you can't even see him, can't even tell who he is. The referee should be accountable for it. And I think the [competition] committee feels that way, too. I don't think it's changing.''
Presumably, the Bills proposed the rule change in order to speed up the process of replay review, said NFL competition committee chairman and Falcons team president Rich McKay. Under this format, the replay review would be conducted upstairs, without the referee needing to repair to the sideline to go under the hood and watch a series of replays on the monitor.
"Look, a lot of these [replay officials] upstairs are retired [game officials],'' one NFC general manager said. "Let's leave it to the guys who are on the field and control the game. The lead official has a lot at stake in the football game in terms of it being refereed the way he wants it to be refereed. So why would you take it off his shoulders? I think it disrespects the head official on the field. It tells him, 'You're not that powerful.' I think it's got no chance to pass. I haven't heard anybody say it's a great idea.''
To no great surprise, the coaches and club executives I talked to all seemed to be in favor of expanding the automatic replay reviews to change of possession plays (in addition to scoring plays), moving the league trading deadline from Week 6 to Week 8 in the regular season, and adopting the same overtime rules in the regular season that have been used for the playoffs the past two seasons (no first possession field goal can end a game in sudden death). Those measures are expected to sail through. As a reminder, it takes 24 of 32 clubs voting in favor of a proposal to become NFL law.
• Even if Sean Payton does wind up issuing a full-throated apology through the media on Tuesday at the annual meeting -- and nothing about the schedule being kept by the Saints head coach seemed all that certain on Monday -- Payton's agent, Don Yee, said the filing of an appeal of his year-long suspension has not been ruled out.
In part, however, Payton might seek an appeal by the April 2 deadline to fully clarify the extent of the league's suspension ruling, helping spell out the guidelines of what he can and can't do between April 1 and the end of next season's Super Bowl. Whether or not Payton realistically has any expectations of Goodell reducing the length of his suspension is not known, but Payton might view the appeal process as a valuable step to take regardless of whether his penalty gets altered.
If his suspension would happen to be shortened, Payton likely wouldn't be as likely to seek an interim head coach who's not currently on his staff, meaning any chance of the Saints pursuing Bill Parcells as his temporary replacement would be reduced. With a lessened suspension for Payton, New Orleans would probably turn back to either defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael or offensive line coach Aaron Kromer as an interim.
• I suppose this should come as no surprise, given that New England beat the Tim Tebow-led Broncos twice last season, including the AFC Divisional round, but Patriots owner Robert Kraft was positively giddy about the reality of Tebow being in the AFC East this season.
"I think it's exciting,'' Kraft said of New York's celebrated backup quarterback joining the Rex Ryan-led Jets. "I think it's a lot of fun. The NFL is about rivalries. I'm a big fan of Tim Tebow. I love that he's into spirituality and I think it makes the rivalry an even bigger rivalry. I don't know if there'll be enough media hype around the game, but it'll be fun.''
Ever the businessman, Kraft said he couldn't help but take notice of Tebow having attended the Broadway production of "Wicked'' the other day.
"I understand he went to see his first Broadway play, since being back in town,'' Kraft said. "Tell him to go see "Evita'' because we're investors in that.''