(Last updated: 2:20 p.m.)
Roger Goodell got it right Wednesday – not just for coming down hard on the New Orleans Saints in general and coach Sean Payton in particular, but for slamming somebody who doesn’t wear a uniform.
The NFL commissioner suspended Payton, the Saints’ head coach, for the entire 2012 season for his role in the team’s bounty program. He also suspended former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (now with St. Louis) for at least one year, assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games and general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games. The Saints also will lose two second-round draft picks (2012 and 2013) and must pay a $500,000 fine.
The Saints will be allowed to keep their shoes.
Player discipline will be forthcoming. But the punishment against Payton and the team, while harsh, is justified. The Saints not only implemented a bounty program that “endangered player safety over a three-year period,” quoting from the NFL’s official news release (or jury verdict), but they lied about it. Allegations regarding the 2009 Super Bowl season initially were investigated in 2010, but couldn’t be proved. Team officials denied it then, and again this past season when new evidence surfaced.
The league referenced, “a deliberate effort to conceal the program’s existence from league investigators, and a clear determination to maintain the program despite express direction from Saints ownership that it stop as well as ongoing inquiries from the league office.”
If we know one thing about Roger Goodell, it’s that he doesn’t like being lied to.
“We are all accountable and responsible for player health and safety and the integrity of the game,” he said. “We will not tolerate conduct or a culture that undermines those priorities.”
Don’t confuse the NFL’s licensed violence with premeditated assault. As former Chicago Bears safety Doug Plank said two weeks ago, “I can’t believe a coach, a team or an organization would stand behind that [bounty] policy. For a coach to even address something like that with players, like, ‘This is a person we can remove from the game,’ that puts you on pretty thin ice.”
The investigation revealed the Saints placed bounties on four opposing quarterbacks: Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner. It said the Saints’ Jonathan Vilma “offered $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the  NFC championship game.”
Was it Goodell’s objective to make an example of the Saints? Absolutely. His mission is to “protect the shield.” The ripple effect of this punishment will be felt in 31 other front offices.
But this particularly sends a great message to players. Goodell has been known as “the discipline” commissioner. For the past several seasons, he has come down hard on players for on- and off-the-field actions that he believes casts the league in a negative light. There has been a perception he is not equally tough on coaches or team officials. (An exception: “Spygate.” Goodell disciplined the New England Patriots for videotaping the New York Jets’ defensive hand signals in 2007 and took a first-round draft pick away from the team.)
Goodell largely is viewed as the owners’ guy. Of course, he is. He works for the 32 NFL owners, not the 1,700 players. That was reaffirmed with several comments he made during collective-bargaining talks and the lockout before last season.
But there is no dispute here. If Goodell didn’t wreck the Saints, he certainly left them doubled-over.
A recent Super Bowl winner – and the Falcons’ primary competition in the NFC South – just lost its head coach (Payton), his top assistant (Vitt) and its general manager (Loomis). The $500,000 fine means little. The two second-round picks mean significantly more.
Saints owner Tom Benson will not invite Goodell to dinner at Commander’s Palace any time soon.
Goodell said the involvement of players is still being reviewed and punishment will be decided at a future time. But coming down on those not wearing the uniforms is significant. He made the right call.
By Jeff Schultz