About two dozen New Orleans Saints players and an assistant coach had a bounty program that paid bonuses for injuring opponents, the National Football League said.
Between 22 and 27 Saints players were involved in the program during the past three seasons, with as much as $1,500 paid for a specific hit, the league said yesterday in an e- mailed release. The players were not identified in the release.
The findings from the NFL’s security department have been presented to Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will meet with the players union before determining discipline for the team and individuals involved. The investigation began in 2010, when the league heard the Saints were targeting Pro Bowl quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.
“The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance,’ but also for injuring opposing players,” Goodell said in the release. “The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity.”
Saints owner Tom Benson said in a statement that he was aware of the league’s findings and that he has cooperated with the investigation.
“While the results may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans,” Benson said.
The investigation found that Saints players and at least one coach regularly contributed to a pool and received payment based on their performance in the previous week’s game. Payments were received for interceptions and fumble recoveries, as well as for injuring opposing players.
The pool violates an NFL rule prohibiting non-contract bonuses, according to the release. Players can’t receive added pay for performance against particular teams or opponents, or for on-field misconduct such as injuring opponents or personal fouls, according to a memo Goodell sends each year to all 32 teams.
Set up by then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Saints’ bonus pool may have reached as much as $50,000 during the 2009 playoffs, which culminated in the team’s Super Bowl victory against the Indianapolis Colts, according to the NFL release. Williams, now an assistant with the St. Louis Rams, occasionally contributed funds himself, the NFL said.
$1,500 for ‘Knockout’
Players were paid $1,500 for a “knockout,” in which an opposing player was unable to return to the game, and $1,000 for a “cart-off” in which opposing players were carried off the field, according to the release. Payments doubled or tripled during the playoffs.
Williams, 53, who was head coach of the Buffalo Bills in 2001-2003, apologized to the league and the Saints yesterday in an e-mailed statement.
“It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it,” Williams said. “Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role.”
The Washington Redskins had a similar bounty system for big hits on opponents when Williams was defensive coordinator there in 2004-2007, four players from those teams told the Washington Post.
Three of those players described a coach who offered thousands of dollars to Redskins defenders who succeeded in Williams’s scoring system for rugged play, including “kill shots” that knocked opposing teams’ stars out of a game.
“You got compensated more for a kill shot than you did other hits,” one former Redskins player told the newspaper on condition of anonymity.
This isn’t the first time that an NFL team has been accused of having a bounty system. Following a Nov. 23, 1989, game against the Buddy Ryan-coached Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmie Johnson accused Ryan of offering to pay for big hits on two of his players.
Johnson said an unidentified coach and two players had confirmed that Ryan offered a $200 bounty on Cowboys kicker Luis Zendejas and a $500 bounty on rookie quarterback Troy Aikman.
“What concerns me more is when you take away from the integrity of the game,” Johnson said at that time. “Having bounties on opposing players is not the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Ryan denied the accusations and the league lacked sufficient evidence to prove a rule was broken, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail.
In October 2008, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs told Atlanta-based radio station “2 Live Stews” that his team had a bounty on Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Hines Ward. The league looked into the statements and Suggs later clarified his comments to imply that the Ravens kept a close watch on those two players, according to ESPN.
Brian Billick, who coached the Ravens from 1999 to 2007, said in an interview on The Dan Patrick Show following Suggs’ comments that bounties were a part of the game.
“No one wants to hurt another player, no one wants to impact or end a players’ career, but there’s a certain mentality, it’s locker room talk, it’s playground-type talk that every team does,” Billick said. “You throw a Kangaroo Court number out there and say OK, this gets this, and you put money in a pool, and every team does it.”
‘Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell’
Billick called it “one of those don’t ask-don’t tell things,” describing it as an equivalent of wide receivers being offered bonuses for catching touchdowns or defensive backs for getting interceptions.
“Players are very conscious about not jeopardizing the career or the welfare of another player, but this is a very physical, violent game and you play those games with regards to how are you going to motivate yourself and your teammates,” he said.
Billick declined to comment when reached yesterday by telephone, saying he had just gotten off a flight and didn’t have details.
The investigation began in 2010 when the league heard that the Saints had targeted Warner of the Arizona Cardinals and Favre of the Minnesota Vikings, Goodell said. The allegations were denied when the league originally looked into the bounty program, but the investigation, which included a review of 18,000 documents and an undisclosed number of interviews, was reopened toward the end of last season.
“It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated,” Goodell said. “We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.”
In October 2010, the league announced it was cracking down on illegal hits by handing out fines and considering possible suspensions. Last season the NFL handed out penalties to players who broke the rule, including a $40,000 fine to Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson and a one-game suspension to Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
Benson, when informed of the bounty program earlier this year, asked general manager Mickey Loomis to discontinue the pool, the NFL said. Loomis, who had denied knowledge of the program in 2010, didn’t carry out Benson’s instructions, according to the league’s statement.
Punishment may include fines, suspensions or the forfeiture of draft choices, the NFL said. No time frame was given for Goodell’s decision.
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