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Saints, team officials involved in bounty program should pay dearly

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Vikings players and coaches were livid after Brett Favre was hurt in the '09 NFC title game. (Getty Images)  
Vikings players and coaches were livid after Brett Favre was hurt in the '09 NFC title game. (Getty Images)  

When the NFL announced Friday that it had discovered the New Orleans Saints were guilty of maintaining a "bounty program" for three seasons, it said it could fine or suspend those involved. It also said it could dock the Saints draft picks.

Well, here's a suggestion: Do all three.

This isn't the New England Patriots and Spygate. This is far more serious, with a club rewarding its players for injuring others -- something that's in direct conflict with the NFL's drive for player safety.

So make the Saints pay. No, make them suffer as they made opponents suffer.

Gregg Williams, then the defensive coordinator, ran the program. I would suspend him, and I would fine him. Severely. Coach Sean Payton apparently knew about it and did nothing. The same goes for GM Mickey Loomis. I would fine them and suspend them, too.

Then start subtracting draft picks.

A source I trust told me it's "very, very likely" there will be suspensions, and there should be. Commissioner Roger Goodell spent much of the past few years preaching the wisdom and importance of player safety -- with the league implementing measures to make the game a better place for its players. The latest collective bargaining agreement was aimed at player safety, too, with the league and NFL Players Association agreeing on measures that tried to make the game safer for those involved.

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Apparently, the Saints didn't get the memo. Worse, they flouted it, and if you witnessed the 2009 NFC Championship Game you know what I'm talking about. It was clear that afternoon that the Saints were going after then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, not just to hit him but to hurt him.

I'm not talking about banging the guy around; I'm talking about crippling him.

They took two penalties for hitting the quarterback and should have drawn a third when Saints defensive lineman Bobby McCray crushed Favre below the knees, injuring his ankle. The score was tied at 21, and Favre threw a crucial interception on the play.

"It's the type of hit that we don't want," then-vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said afterward. "Pretty much a direct shot into the back of [Favre's] legs."

Favre limped off the field, only to return later, but he could not rescue the Vikings from an overtime defeat. Afterward, Minnesota assistants fumed at what they believed were Williams' direct orders to injure Favre, with at least one telling me that he was "going to punch the guy in the face" when he saw him again.

He wasn't alone. I asked then-Vikings coach Brad Childress about it the following August, and he was emphatic in his suspicions of the Saints' intentions.

"Do you think they tried to hurt Favre?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said. "As I look through 13 different clips ... as I looked at it, yes. I talk about hitting the quarterback every week, [saying things like] this guy is a different guy if you hit him, if you make him move his feet. But I just felt if you go back and look at that thing it was whatever, whoever. ... I just know they orchestrated some things that weren't within our rules.

"I don't know if Brett ever looked at it, but we looked at it. I had one of my defensive linemen tell me, 'Coach, that's what they had; they were going after him. Just like you saw the week before with [the Cardinals' Kurt] Warner.'"

Running back Adrian Peterson told me the same thing, and, clearly, the league was listening.

"They definitely tried to hurt [Favre]," Peterson said then. "They definitely went out of their way."

Of course, it didn't matter because the Saints went to the Super Bowl and the Vikings did not. Then the Saints walked off with their first NFL title while the Vikings walked to the next tee.

Nothing was done two years ago, but plenty should be done now. Because now we have evidence from the NFL office that what the Saints did was illegal, improper and downright wrong. They did what clubs are warned not to do, and they did it over and over and over.

Read the NFL's release, and it's clear that few in New Orleans outside of owner Tom Benson took the league seriously about player safety. I don't know why. I just know the release said they kept repeating what they knew they should not do.

And why not? It helped win them a Super Bowl.

So there's nothing we can do about that. But there's something that can be done now, and the NFL must make it absolutely, positively clear that it will not tolerate anything like this. Fining the Saints won't do it. Subtracting draft picks is a start, and the league did that in Spygate -- taking away a first-round choice, as well as fining coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots a total of $750,000.

But that's not enough. The league insists it's serious about player safety. Well, now it's time to demonstrate it. It must prove that it cannot and will not tolerate clubs running Pay-for-Pain Programs, and suspending all of those who helped run this charade should get the message through.

That does not include the players. There are, according to the NFL, between 22 and 27 of them who participated, but they're not the guys who orchestrated it. At least, not to my knowledge. They did what they were told, which is what players do. Coaches coach, and players play. They don't ask why a play is called; they just run it.

So they participated in a program that Williams, Payton and Loomis knew was wrong, and they made money doing it. I don't know if they knew it was wrong, but I can't fault them if they did not. It's not their job to know the NFL's constitution and bylaws. It's the jobs of their coaches, GMs and front-office executives, and, sorry, all were asleep at the wheel.

Worse, they were willing participants. The program helped them once, but it should hurt them now. So make them pay, and make them pay dearly.

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