Hard-hit Saints will need a few years to clean up this mess

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Among the most damning issus for the Saints was what Mickey Loomis knew and didn't do. (Getty Images)  
Among the most damning issus for the Saints was what Mickey Loomis knew and didn't do. (Getty Images)  

The NFL's decision to take away the head coach, the general manager, assistant head coach, money and draft picks from the New Orleans Saints won't just affect the club for this season. It will take it years to extricate itself, and I'm not just talking about on the field.

I'm talking about the team's image.

Only two years ago, the franchise was one of the NFL's feel-good stories, a team that put a down-and-out city on its back and carried it to its first Super Bowl. Now, it's a club that forever will be linked with one of the game's worst scandals, one considered so heinous that commissioner Roger Goodell pushed back with landmark penalties.

It wasn't enough to suspend a coach or two. Or subtract draft picks. Or impose substantial fines. Nope, he did all three, making sure that what the Saints did nobody ever thinks about doing again.

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But it's not what Goodell did to the Saints that hurts; it's what the Saints did to themselves. They took a good thing and covered it in disgrace, disrepute and shame. No longer are they the team that lifted the city with a come-from-behind victory in Super Bowl XLIV. They're the club that practiced "Bountygate," an episode with enormous implications for the league and one of its most successful franchises.

And to think ... this could have been avoided.

In its original announcement into findings that former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams paid players to hurt opponents, the NFL said it contacted New Orleans owner Tom Benson to notify him of the practice and that he cooperated with the investigation. Moreover, it said Benson warned general manager Mickey Loomis about what was happening and that Benson told him to stop it "immediately."

It also said Loomis ignored the warning.

"The evidence," the NFL said in a statement, "showed that Mr. Loomis did not carry out Mr. Benson's directions. Similarly, when the initial allegations were discussed with Mr. Loomis in 2010, he denied any knowledge of a bounty program and pledged that he would ensure that no such program was in place. There is no evidence that Mr. Loomis took any effective action to stop these practices."

So the NFL took action itself, and now it's time Benson makes the next move. Until now, we've heard how supportive he is of his coach and GM, but in the wake of Wednesday's penalties, he needs to face reality. And the reality is that they ruined the reputation of a popular and proud franchise.

This could've been avoided had Loomis only listened to his owner, but he didn't. So fire the guy. You heard me. Fire him. He disregarded an order from the boss, and look what happened.

The Saints are the Aints again, as in Aint got a head coach, Aint got a GM, Aint got $500,000 and Aint got two draft picks. Had Loomis done what he was supposed to do, this might have been avoided. But he didn't.

Benson could hire a replacement from another team, or he could promote someone like Khai Harley, the team's director of football administration, from within. I don’t know where Benson goes here, but I do know this: I'd hire someone who follows orders, and I'd start talking to people outside the club, pronto.

It's time the Saints start over here, and I mean change the entire culture of a place that not only ignored the commissioner's directive on player safety but flouted it. Worse, according to league findings, the team engaged in a systematic coverup, with Payton denying the existence of the program until confronted with evidence.

"In January, 2012," said the league statement, "prior to the first playoff game of the 2011 season, Coach Payton was advised by Mr. Loomis that the league office had reopened the investigation. Coach Payton made a cursory inquiry but took no action to ensure that any bounty program was discontinued."

Well, then, he's got to go too.

The question is who becomes interim head coach, and the obvious choice was assistant Joe Vitt, the team's assistant head coach who ran the club when Payton was sidelined last year with a shattered kneecap. Only one problem: Vitt was suspended six games too, telling you that what happened here ran deeper than first believed.

So that makes offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael the leading candidate, and my guess is that's where the Saints turn. Carmichael called the plays after Payton bowed out last season, and he was terrific. In fact, when Payton returned, he wisely let Carmichael continue.

"He's doing a great job," quarterback Drew Brees said then. "Not just a good job. He's doing a great job."

Brees' endorsement counts for plenty, and it should when this club decides where to go next. Again, Benson could look outside the organization, but that's not reasonable -- not in the middle of the offseason, not with teams in pre-draft modes and not with players reporting to facilities within a month.

It makes no sense. But it might after this season. As I said, this practice apparently ran deeper than anybody, including the league office, first believed.

I don't know what happens from here with Payton, Loomis or Benson, but the league needs to clarify a few things. For instance, can a suspended head coach be in contact with the club? Can he visit the facility? Can the GM? Can they have communication with staff? With players? Can they consult? Review tape? Make recommendations? What?

The penalties are enormous and they are far-reaching, but they should be. The New Orleans Saints willingly and wantonly ignored warnings that they were in violation of NFL rules and the league's player-safety policies, and they dared the NFL to do something about it.

Well, it just did. But what the Saints did to themselves is far, far worse.

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