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Goodell, NFL hammer ringleader Payton, and they're right on target

by | CBSSports.com National NFL Insider
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Arrogant, high-flying Sean Payton is brought back to earth by the NFL. (Getty Images)  
Arrogant, high-flying Sean Payton is brought back to earth by the NFL. (Getty Images)  

This is a lesson about unfiltered arrogance and what happens when men and organizations lose themselves after first finding themselves.

The New Orleans Saints have gone from the toast of a nation to just toast. It has been a long, strange trip from post-Katrina national heroes to one of the more historic disgraces in recent NFL history. And the Saints' fall from grace can be traced back to one man: Sean Payton.

Payton being suspended for the season is the strongest message NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could have sent, and it's well-deserved.

"The NFL's extensive investigation established the existence of an active bounty program on the Saints during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons in violation of league rules, a deliberate effort to conceal the program's existence from league investigators," said the NFL in a statement, "and a clear determination to maintain the program despite express direction from Saints ownership that it stop as well as ongoing inquiries from the league office."

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"We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game," Goodell said. "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."

A variety of league sources say the phasering of the Saints franchise by Goodell is as much about Payton and the Saints as it is about Goodell attempting to change the NFL's brutal culture, and they're correct. Payton has long been on the league's radar, and not in a good way.

Goodell wants to wisely change the NFL's ways from the old days of headhunting and bounties to a modern sport that is more civilized and less dangerous. To do this, Goodell knows he can't just attack players. He has to also control the coaches and teams that encourage this behavior.

As a result of Goodell's actions -- the right actions -- this type of extremeness will die a glorious death, at least for the near future. Not only will bounties never happen again, but Payton and the Saints will serve as a great cautionary tale for every other coach and team that believes they are above the rules.

The player discipline will come soon. One person with knowledge of the situation said Goodell has asked union head DeMaurice Smith for his advice on how to proceed in that direction.

To the NFL, and to almost everyone else in football not within the state of Louisiana, Payton has been the most arrogant man in the sport for the past several years. The league warned him about his association with felonious skunk Michael Ornstein, who has twice been convicted of fraud. Payton mostly ignored them. Later, the NFL determined Ornstein actually placed a bounty bet.

When a lawsuit by the team's former head of security, an ex-FBI agent, alleged there was a cover-up of Vicodin abuse, Payton's name eventually surfaced as part of the legal action. Payton denied any wrongdoing, and the league rolled its eyes.

There were many other issues. To the NFL, the Saints were getting out of control, and to the NFL, Payton has been the reason.

In this new Goodell world, everyone is accountable. Not just players. Not just arrogant coaches like Payton. Owners are, too. Everyone, including entire franchises.

Illegally videotape franchises? Lose picks and cash. Fail to protect players, and even, encourage them in Bountygate? Get hammered as well.

Payton has been able to act with impunity and great arrogance because of the market he's in. The city of New Orleans -- one of the greatest on the planet -- has suffered greatly with a long line of losers going back decades that caused fans to both cover their heads with paper bags and stick their faces in them to hyperventilate.

Fans don't care if Payton berates reporters with loads of foul language or bans them from covering practice (which is against NFL rules) or has Vicodin issues or is sued by the former head of security. They don't care if Payton was a bully. He won. He brought them a Super Bowl. That's all that matters to fans.

The problem is, all along, in a somewhat isolated media market, Payton was becoming out of control. I knew Payton when he worked in New York. He was a nerd. The power in New Orleans changed him into something different, and that difference, in my opinion, is what allowed the culture of Bountygate to grow.

Every team in the league should use the Payton and the Saints as an instructional video on how not to handle success. Any team that doesn't learn from this disaster, well, it's on you. Goodell will be watching.

And good for him.

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