If you listen hard, you’ll hear giggles. But you have to listen hard. The NFL, which has a deft hand for publicity, hasn’t gone to great lengths to advertise just how despised the New Orleans Saints have become. Within football circles, they’re regarded as the spoiled child who wears a sense of entitlement on his shoulder pads.
The formerly feckless Saints rising to excellence in the wake of Katrina and finally delivering a Super Bowl to New Orleans? A feel-good story of the first rank. Alas, not all of its architects were such swell guys.
On Friday the NFL released the findings of what it termed “a lengthy investigation” into the Saints’ pay-for-mayhem scheme, and this probe — unlike, say, those conducted by the NCAA — wasn’t the product of some media report. This was all the league’s doing, and from its pointed language we’re left with only one conclusion: The Saints are in real trouble.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who will decide the penalties, has already tipped his hand, saying: “The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for ‘performance’ but also for injuring opposing players.”
From the NFL’s findings: The Saints’ bounty scheme spanned three seasons — the Super Bowl run included — and involved 22 to 27 defensive players; it was “administered” by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams; it was no secret to either head coach Sean Payton or general manager Mickey Loomis, the latter of whom lied to the NFL about its existence and then failed to heed owner Tom Benson’s instructions that the practice be discontinued.
The Washington Post has reported that “lengthy suspensions” could be levied against Loomis, Payton and Williams (who’s now with the St. Louis Rams). How lengthy? According to the Post’s Mark Maske, quoting an unnamed source: “A half-season or longer.”
It couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.
The same audacity that enabled Payton to lift the Saints from mediocrity has been allowed to shape operational policy. The Saints act as if they’re better and smarter than everyone else. The NFL was aghast over the Saints’ behavior during its Super Bowl week: The team was late for Media Day, Payton was late for nearly everything and then, as a capper, he tried to duck the winning coach’s morning-after briefing.
In his autobiography, Payton admits he did some celebratory drinking and barely slept. Only through the entreaties of his pal Mike Ornstein did he make the press session, of which Payton wrote: “I’m lucky I could string a sentence together at all.”
The same Mike Ornstein, according to an NFL memo obtained by Mike Freeman of CBS Sports, pledged money to the Saints’ bounty fund in both 2009 in 2011. In 1995 Ornstein pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud: While the NFL’s director of club marketing, he’d submitted $350,000 in invoices for goods never received. In 2010 Ornstein, then described as “a marketing agent,” pleaded guilty for conspiring to scalp Super Bowl tickets. Question: Why is an NFL coach consorting with a felon?
(To Payton, appearances apparently mean little. He caused a stir in New Orleans — which is, post-Katrina, hugely sensitive to relocations — when he moved his family to Dallas in 2011. And whose house did the Paytons lease in the posh Westlake suburb? Why, Atlanta-Brave-for-a-year Mark Teixeira’s.)
In 2010 the Saints were sued by former security director Geoffrey Santini, who accused “senior staff members” of stealing Vicodin from the team’s prescription-drug supply. Payton was identified as one of the senior staffers but denied any wrongdoing. In an interview with Glenn Guilbeau of USA Today, Santini accused Loomis of trying to oversee a coverup. The lawsuit went to arbitration; no resolution has come to light.
On Dec. 27, 2010, some Saints players and coaches celebrated victory in the Georgia Dome by posing for a photo at midfield. Defensive tackle Remi Ayodele told Pete Prisco of CBS Sports that he’d urinated on the Falcons logo. A year later, Payton allowed quarterback Drew Brees to keep throwing at the end of a nationally televised rout of the Falcons in the (successful) attempt to break Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a season.
The Saints are such a classy crew that they don’t know real class when it lives in their locker room. Last week Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports reported that Loomis had referred to Brees, whose contract is expiring, as merely a “very good” quarterback. Unable to work out a long-term deal, the Saints slapped the franchise tag on Brees, which means they’ll keep him for 2012. But why run the risk of alienating the best player that city has known? Why not lock him up for five more years? (And thereby save the franchise tag for guard Carl Nicks, who could be targeted by the Falcons.)
If you listen hard, you’ll hear giggles at the thought of the Saints getting their comeuppance. The loudest of those might well be emanating from Flowery Branch, although the Falcons are too smart to admit such a thing. Old political adage: When your rival is in the process of destroying himself, get out of the way.
By Mark Bradley