|Roger Goodell has some hard choices to make in this scandal. (AP)|
Roger Goodell's next real moment of leadership comes now, and it will be fascinating to see how artfully he ducks it.
The Saints Bounty story has been analyzed from every conceivable angle, though most of them have to do with Gregg Williams as the embodiment of all evil and the guy who therefore needs to learn the lesson of unemployment.
Strangely, though, the matter of how badly the Saints themselves need to be punished seems to focus on draft choices and money, two things they, and every other team, have in abundance.
What they do not have, though, is depth at head coach and general manager, and if Goodell is trying to either end or severely hamper the practice of bounty-hunting, or (and God this is a stupid concept) "send a message," it is there where the secondary hammer must fall.
And where, if we know Goodell's ability for softening the blow the higher up the food chain it needs to be delivered, it won't.
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Simply put, coach Sean Payton needs a year off. So does general manager Mickey Loomis. They hired Williams, and they knew of and enjoyed the benefits of the bounty scheme. They got a Super Bowl with the help of it, and if that isn't a benefit, there's no such thing as one.
Oh, they'll keep their rings and the money that came with it, but their approval of Williams' pay-for-flay scheme is a stunningly underappreciated part of the plan. This could not have happened if Payton said no, or if Loomis told them both no, and they're supposed to be in charge of the football operation.
In short, Goodell's only real chance of eliminating the practice of inspiring players to maim each other is to strike broadly, swiftly and cruelly. It is the only thing players, coaches and general managers all understand. It is the only thing that could make it stop.
We've gotten long and involved explanations of how and how many times Gregg Williams went wrong, and how the players have such a cavalier attitude in general about their brethren. Those angles all have their place in the Streets-Of-Deadwood experience that is the National Football League.
But Goodell has wanted to be the safety commissioner, and this is a direct middle finger at his plan. If he wants this cleaned up, or at least returned to the darkest shadows of NFL life, the two men in authority who knew of the scheme and approved it need to see what a year without the job means, from the thousands of idle hours or the shame that goes with it.
Will this happen? In a word, no. The fact so many veteran NFL reporters are focusing on Williams and lost draft choices is because they either know how this is going to go, or they've gotten the word from sources that this is how it's going to go.
But it's the wrong play because it doesn't do the one thing that makes football people notice the severity of the act. It doesn't punish the powerful who aided and abetted the scheme. And since we know Payton and Loomis knew about Williams' plan, it doesn't matter that Payton and Williams didn't much get along, or that Williams had an off-putting personality.
It's simple. He set up a scheme whereby players would be paid for hurting other players; this is a fact. His superiors acknowledged its existence and approved it; this is another fact. The result is that the league has been brought into disrepute at a time when it is frantically changing rules to increase player safety, and that is a third fact.
If Goodell wants the efficiency and consistency that addresses all those concerns, he takes out not only Williams but suspends Payton and Loomis. He can also do the draft choices and the fines if he wants, and if he has the stomach to seek out and punish the players, that too.
But we know from all our experience that coaches in particular don't accept responsibility for anything unless they are hit between the eyes with it, and this is a platinum opportunity for Goodell to make that happen. Payton and Loomis need to pay their share for this, too, and they need to pay hard in hopes their contemporaries will consider not allowing it on their teams.
Will it happen though? Again, we'd bet heavily against it. Commissioners often find that their jobs are about meting out the minimum amount of management punishment so the owners, who employ the commissioners, will keep their noses in joint. Draft choices are an easy way to do that; so are fines.
This needs more, though. This needs much more. And sadly, unless we have badly underestimated Goodell's spinal column and exoskeleton, the proper blow that fixes the problem won't be delivered.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com.