By Chris Burke
March 21, 2012

The Saints will be without Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season. (Getty Images)

The NFL has gone out of its way in recent years to protect its players from injury, but commissioner Roger Goodell took that message to a new level Wednesday. The league dropped the hammer on the New Orleans Saints and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (now with the Rams) for their participation in a bounty program, which handed out cash rewards for injuring opposing players and making big plays.

The investigation showed bounties being placed on four quarterbacks of opposing teams – Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner.

Saints head coach Sean Payton has been suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season, general manager Mickey Loomis earned an eight-game suspension and assistant coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games of the season. New Orleans also has to pay a $500,000 fine and will forfeit its second-round draft picks in 2012 and '13.

Williams, meanwhile, has been suspended indefinitely, and Goodell will reevaluate his standing at the end of the 2012 season.

Williams' suspension begins immediately, while Payton's kicks in on April 1 and Loomis' after the final preseason game.

In short, this is a massive punishment across the board -- one that could include more names if the NFL subsequently punishes any of the 20-plus players involved in "Bountygate."

"We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game," Goodell said in a statement. "We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities. No one is above the game or the rules that govern it. Respect for the game and the people who participate in it will not be compromised.

"A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious. When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game."

The NFL also required all other teams to confirm to the league that they did not have bounty programs in place.

Warner, one of the QBs targeted by the Saints' bounty program, commented on the punishment on NFL Network.

"I'm shocked like a lot of people, but not fully surprised," Warner said. "One thing we realize about the commish is this has been primary from day one ... he was going to protect our players. I am shocked at Coach Payton being suspended for a year and the various other things, but this is what Commissioner Goodell has done from day one. I love that he is trying to make statements to protect our game for the long-term."

Payton and Loomis issued a joint statement on March 6 taking full responsibility for the problems in New Orleans.

"We acknowledge that the violations disclosed by the NFL during their investigation of our club happened under our watch," they said in a statement. "These are serious violations and we understand the negative impact it has had on our game. Both of us have made it clear within our organization that this will never happen again, and make that same promise to the NFL and most importantly to all of our fans."

The fallout from Wednesday's announcement could be long-lasting and momentous, starting with questions of who coaches the Saints in 2012, if New Orleans will retain Payton beyond that, and what St. Louis does to replace Williams as its defensive coordinator.

The Saints did hire Steve Spagnuolo to replace Williams as their defensive coordinator -- Spagnuolo was fired from his post as the Rams' head coach in January after posting a 10-38 record over three seasons.

New Orleans also still has to deal with Drew Brees' contract status. The Saints placed the franchise tag on Brees, but their superstar quarterback has yet to sign that tender and there has been minimal movement on a long-term deal. The substantial punishments handed out to the Saints on Wednesday could further hinder that pursuit.

Between 22 and 27 players reportedly were cited in the league's investigation into the Saints' bounty program, including veteran Jonathan Vilma.

While discipline for those players may still come, the NFL and Goodell clearly placed a great deal of the onus for this situation on the Saints' higher-ups. Both St. Louis and New Orleans now have to deal with the ramifications of that decision.

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