Two months to the day after this bombshell of a story first exploded across the NFL, the final shoe finally dropped Wednesday in the Saints bounty scandal. And predictably, it landed with another loud, reverberating thud.
Make no mistake: the New Orleans bounty saga will go down as one of the worst chapters in NFL history, and rather than cover it up, league commissioner Roger Goodell clearly wants to make sure everyone remembers it. That's why he provided such a harsh exclamation point on Wednesday, suspending four defenders a total of 31 games in 2012 for their roles in the team's bounty program, with New Orleans veteran middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma receiving a stiff season-long suspension.
The player penalties were significant, but hardly surprising in light of the ground this ugly story has already covered. On March 21, Goodell suspended former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, gave Saints head coach Sean Payton a yearlong suspension and doled out eight- and six-game suspensions, respectively, to New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt. Those in charge of the Saints organization got hit, and were indeed held to a higher standard by the league.
But the consequences of the Saints' controversial actions didn't end there. In coming down hard on the players the league identified as the leaders of the Saints bounty program -- Vilma, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (eight games), defensive end Will Smith (four games) and linebacker Scott Fujita (three games) -- Goodell's message was clear: Everyone in the game of pro football has a responsibility to make player safety paramount. No one can hide behind the claim they were just following a coach's orders, or had no choice but to give into the peer pressure that prevailed in New Orleans' bounty program. Those excuses simply didn't wash in the eyes of the league.
Now that the blame has been equally spread around, here's hoping Wednesday provided a step toward full circle on the closure this story needs. True, appeals are forthcoming from the four suspended players, and perhaps even a legal fight in federal court, if the early indications emanating from the NFL Players Association can be believed. But given that the league's newly renegotiated collective bargaining agreement gives the commissioner broad powers to penalize for conduct deemed detrimental to the game -- a deal the players signed off on -- and that Hargrove is said to have given the league a signed declaration establishing the existence of the bounty program and his participation in it, I'm not sure where a federal court factors into the picture.
Goodell clearly believes he's on the right side of history when it come to the league's attempts to make the game safer for its players, and that the Saints bounty program flew in the face of those efforts in a way that had to be challenged vigorously. Never forget the backdrop of this story is the 1,200 or so former NFL players who are in the process of suing the league over concussion and head-trauma issues, and that may be one reason Goodell felt he had to come down so hard on the Saints involved in this scandal. Like him or loathe him, agree or disagree with his efforts, Goodell sees himself as a steward of the game, and this was part of the game that was long overdue to be changed.
The players are going to argue on appeal that they were just doing what Williams told them to do, but frankly, that's not plausible. Since when do players blindly follow coaches these days, without asking questions, thinking for themselves or if need be, breaking a few rules or blowing a whistle (such as when players turn in their own coaches for in-season or offseason practice violations)? This was a coach and player production in New Orleans, and no one made Vilma offer $10,000 to any defensive teammate who knocked out either Kurt Warner or Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC playoffs. It wasn't just rah-rah motivational words by a hyperbolic coach, with no monetary inducement or clear-cut injury objectives stated.
The Saints had veteran team leaders on defense, and at some point when Williams got up and ranted in his over-the-top style about putting some hurt on the other team, someone could have stood up and pushed back, making it clear that the message was heard, but inducing injury would not be part of the game plan.
Instead, the NFL says some key Saints defenders took what Williams organized, then they expanded and enhanced it, and made it their own. And at its apex, it looked like the level of physicality and violence that we saw in the 2009 Vikings-Saints NFC Championship, which clearly didn't play out like just another hard-hitting football game.
The 2012 Saints will actually be just fine based on the player suspensions. A total of 27 New Orleans players were identified as having taken part in the bounty program, and 23 of those escaped all punishment. Of the four who were suspended, two are no longer with the team (Hargrove, now a Packer, left in 2011; Fujita joined the Browns in 2010).
As for the loss of Vilma, the Saints have rebuilt their entire linebacking corps this offseason, and free-agent signee Curtis Lofton was a good bet to take Vilma's starting job anyway this year. All things considered, losing Smith for the first four games of the season isn't a make-or-break type punishment in New Orleans. The penalties could have been felt more widespread, and the hammer could have fallen harder.
The potentially messy appeal process aside, the league has finally started to put the Saints bounty story into the rearview mirror. If it indeed does go on to spawn the culture change in the game that Goodell seeks, making football safer, the NFL scandal that dominated our attention in the spring of 2012 will not have been for naught. But as turning points go, almost everything about this one was painful to watch.