But a lifetime ban from the NFL for Williams is exactly the opposite and counterproductive reaction to have. With this vivid example, using Williams' own descriptive and sickening words, the league has instead been handed the ultimate gift to help enact the culture change it seeks. Going forward, after his year or more of penance is served, who better to represent the face of change, and to put a face to the issue of player safety than Williams himself?
After all, Williams' central role in the bounty scandal is now forever cemented, thanks to documentary filmmaker Sean Pamphilon, who recorded Williams in all his glory before January's NFC Divisional round playoff game at San Francisco. In an audiotape released Thursday that was part of a documentary on Steve Gleason, the former Saints special teamer who is fighting ALS disease, Williams can be heard offering to pay the fine of any player who hits 49ers quarterback Alex Smith in the head. Later, he implores his players to "do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways.'' Williams also singled out Michael Crabtree's ACL, Vernon Davis' ankle, and Kyle Williams, with his history of concussions, as targets.
As dark as this chapter in NFL history may look at the moment, Williams' over-the-top rhetoric and system of cash incentives for injury started the process of shining a light on this little-known problem within the game. In the same way that Michael Vick now serves as a constant reminder of the evils of dogfighting, and the vigilance that must be maintained against that cruel practice, Williams will now be the necessary deterrent to the temptation of bounties and a win-at-all-costs mentality that even rewarded players for injuring opponents.
A thirst for punishment and accountability makes some demand that Williams never again be allowed to coach in the NFL. Plenty said the same thing about Vick's playing career, which was interrupted by his two-year prison sentence. But there's far more to be gained by keeping Williams in the game, and letting him resume his career at some point, than banishing him forever and seeing the impact of his saga fade with time and distance.
By all accounts, Williams has confessed the error of his ways, realized the loss of perspective his coaching exhibited and made the restoration of his career and his name his singular goal. In other words, he's a very moldable piece of clay at the moment, and the NFL would do well to use that pliability to the utmost in its efforts to make the game safer and rid it of its more barbaric practices.
By going to such extremes in the pursuit of any edge in the intimidation aspect of playing defense, Williams has unwittingly become the poster child for eradicating the style of play that became his trademark. But that's where the power of his example is an asset to the league, not a liability. Once he serves his punishment, and proves his rehabilitation complete in the eyes of the NFL, he can now be the evangelist who preaches the message that defense can be coached and played both tough and mean, without crossing the lines that were crossed in New Orleans and perhaps elsewhere.
The far-reaching impact and potential is obvious. As funny as it sounds, Gregg Williams might wind up being the best thing that ever happened to the issue of player safety in the NFL, the same way I have long maintained that Vick's dogfighting scandal wound up saving thousands of dogs that otherwise might have never had the same chance if Vick's misdeeds had not come to light and become a nationwide drama. In both cases, something good can be born out of something that looked and sounded very bad.
Williams richly deserves his punishment, and a year or more suspension from the NFL will forever stain his career. His hope of again becoming a head coach in the NFL is almost certainly over, and he may not even rise to the level of coordinator after this damaging chapter is over. But he can be of service to a team, and to a league that needed the flashpoint illustration his misguided coaching provided.
Williams foolishly thought what he had constructed within the Saints defense would forever stay in house, even though he brazenly spoke of injuring 49ers players with a camera rolling in his meeting room, and did so more than a week after learning the NFL was re-opening its investigation into the Saints' bounty program in early January.
But events soon peeled back the curtain and revealed the extent to which he and his players were willing to go in the pursuit of victory. It was a story that needed to come to light, if only to make sure no such secrets could ever be kept again. That's how real culture change starts. Change usually comes when tipping points are reached and abuses exposed, and seldom before.
The audiotape of Williams only confirms what we already knew existed in New Orleans, and yet it powerfully highlights the Saints' saga in ways that the NFL's investigation, with its written word, couldn't do. It also underlines again for us the need to change the game's culture in some key ways. Football is a tough, at times violent game. And it's still steeped in the language of battle, with the war of attrition being a major factor in every team's fate each season.
But Williams played to that part of the game's mentality in the wrong way, and here's hoping he gets to make amends and correct his mistakes. The lesson will come in watching how he traverses the distance between those two points. His willingness to change can help bring about the change the league seeks. Far from making Williams disappear, the NFL would do well to someday soon let him and his story take center stage.