|Williams and several Saints players are expected to face NFL discipline for a bounty system. (US Presswire)|
The bounty was $2,000, and the conditions were simple: Knock the starting quarterback out of the game and the cash was yours.
So it was on. The bounty was kept secret from the coaching staff and some of the team. Mostly, only the bounty hunters themselves -- players on the defensive line -- knew the whole plan. The money was fronted by the participants, and one player held the cash.
The problem was, in the game, no one reached the quarterback, and the bounty went unclaimed. The next week, it was doubled to $4,000. The quarterback survived the game intact. The pot grew to $8,000, and finally the defense had knocked out a quarterback, but there were problems. He was only out a few plays and the player who made the hit wasn't part of the bounty crew.
The players spent the money on exotic dancers instead.
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That's one story from a player who asked that neither he nor his team be identified. Other players from around the NFL, in interviews, also recounted various bounty tales. The practice is far from isolated. Some players estimated 30 to 40 percent of all NFL players last season participated in a bounty system.
"This 'bounty' program happens all around the league," former NFL lineman Damien Woody tweeted, "not surprising."
"Bounties, cheap shots, whatever you want to call them, they are part of this game," former Washington defensive back Matt Bowen wrote. "It is an ugly tradition ... you will find it in plenty of NFL cities."
This, the players seem to agree on. There are many bounty systems in the NFL. They can inspire more energized play, and are usually created by players, not coaches. Players interviewed said bounties are offered for anything from knocking a player out of the game to delivering so-called "remember-me" shots.
These players also said most bounties involve small amounts of cash from several hundred dollars to several thousand, rarely more. Mostly, players say, coaches are left out of the loop.
But players also describe the bounty system as a clumsy apparatus that rarely works.
"It's actually almost impossible to do the stuff you set out to do," one AFC player said.
That's because bounties are usually done by defensive teams, and since there are newer rules that protect offenses more than ever, bounties have become far less effective. The penalties, fines and suspensions make the bounty system not worth it.
What makes the most recent case involving the Saints so unusual, players say, was the highly sophisticated system was organized by Gregg Williams, the defensive coach who has been linked to bounty systems in New Orleans, Washington and Buffalo, the latter two according to several published reports. Players interviewed said they have never heard or seen anything remotely close to what Williams and Saints are said to have done by NFL investigators.
This is the crux of this story and why the NFL is reacting so strongly. While bounties have long existed -- going back decades, most infamously associated with Buddy Ryan and the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1980s -- what the Saints did was institutionalize them.
One league official familiar with the NFL investigation put it this way: The Saints took a ragtag concept and turned it into a car assembly line. They made it efficient and vicious, with bounty tentacles reaching the head coach and general manager.
"We became extremely concerned that what the Saints were doing," said the official, who is familiar with the NFL's investigation, "would lead to a player or series of players being badly hurt or worse."
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Several players said almost every key offensive player over the past several years has been targeted by bounties by many NFL teams including Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Cam Newton, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ben Roethlisberger, Ray Rice, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Tony Romo and Tim Tebow.
Players say bounties are done several different ways, none of them sophisticated. A pool of money can be collected and doled out for big hits on offensive stars, leading to a betting-like system. Monetary values are assigned to the various hits, with the more damaging hits or knockout blows getting the most cash.
In some cases, it's even simpler. In the moments before games, players will simply call something out, and another player will match. One player described as simply as "500 for a big hit on the quarterback" and players will match it. One player keeps tabs on the bounty in a notebook. It's often that rudimentary.
Former Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward said several years ago he was told the Baltimore Ravens put a bounty on him. According to Ward, if he was knocked out on crossing route, the Raven who did it would receive a bonus from other players. The Ravens denied it.
But again, players stressed that most bounties were useless and not always taken seriously. Williams might have changed that. On Friday, the NFL released results of a lengthy investigation that revealed a bounty system in the Saints organization that paid players for injuring opponents. According to the NFL, two of the players the Saints targeted were Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.
The bounty system isn't new. It goes back decades, perhaps to the birth of the sport professionally itself. No team became more symbolized with the practice than Ryan's Eagles. The 1989 Thanksgiving game between Philadelphia and Dallas was nicknamed the "Bounty Bowl" after coach Jimmy Johnson said he was told Ryan put a $200 bounty on kicker Luis Zendejas and $500 on quarterback Troy Aikman.
The league said it found no evidence of it but fined 17 players total from both teams for fighting.
Almost a quarter-century later, the league would have an even bigger bounty mess. Much bigger.
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Players, coaches and team executives all believe commissioner Roger Goodell will use the Saints' bounty case the way he did the New England Patriots and Spygate. Goodell fined Bill Belichick $500,000 (the maximum allowed and the largest fine in league history), the organization $250,000 and docked the team a first-round draft selection. It was a devastating penalty, but many believe Goodell did it to end the illicit videotaping culture forever.
League executives believe worse could happen in Bountygate. Officials think Goodell will not just heavily penalize Williams and the Saints players, but he will go extremely hard after coach Sean Payton. It would surprise few in the NFL if Payton wasn't hit harder than Belichick financially and also suspended. Officials also expect Goodell to fine and suspend general manager Mickey Loomis and dock the Saints at least a first-round selection.
One official familiar with the investigation said the penalties could be unprecedented, with suspensions being at least six games. The NFL cautions no decision has been made.
Nonetheless, Goodell could potentially level the organization like a bounty was put on the Saints -- and he will use this crisis to try and end the practice of bounty football forever.