Kevin Williams wasn't surprised by revelations over the weekend that the New Orleans Saints put a bounty on Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game. He saw it with his own eyes.
"You hear things, but you don't know how much truth is behind it," the Vikings All-Pro defensive tackle said. "Especially after that game, you heard their game plan was to take Favre out of the game. You could pretty much tell that was what was going on."
The Saints didn't knock Favre out of the game, but their late hits and over-the-line tactics took a toll. Favre looked like a human bruise in the locker room afterward. He was a 40-year-old quarterback who moved as if he were 80.
"He was a wreck," Williams said.
Two seasons later and with the Saints' intentions now a matter of public record, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is poised to deliver his own form of harsh punishment to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and any other Saints employee who had knowledge of or participated in the bounty program that rewarded players for vicious hits and knocking opponents out of games.
What the league uncovered in its investigation of the Saints bounty program didn't necessarily engender a sense of shock. More like disgust. The NFL's popularity continues to soar because the game is emotional, physical and violent. We're fascinated that players are willing to sacrifice their bodies and long-term health in ways that normal, sane people never would dare consider. It's a brutal world, but it shouldn't be without boundaries.
Injury is an inherent part of the game. Intent to injure is a cardinal sin.
"It's a gladiator game," said former NFL player Bob Stein. "It's not something that needs additional gas on the fire for injuries. If in fact it turns out that [the Saints'] point is, 'We'll pay you for injuring other players,' to me that's way, way, way outside the lines."
The timing of this story couldn't be any worse for Gregg Williams, the Saints or the NFL. The league is operating in the age of concussion awareness and increased player safety. The NFL has become diligent and vigilant about promoting safety and penalizing those who don't adhere to rules. Even borderline hits are now subject to steep fines.
An increasing number of former players have stepped forward to share testimonials -- and join lawsuits against the NFL -- outlining how repeated brain trauma suffered during their career has affected their daily lives.
With that sad reality as the backdrop, Goodell is handed a case in which a team fosters an environment that rewards players financially for imposing injury on other players. That's why many league observers predict unprecedented punishment involving fines and suspensions that could include General Manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, in addition to Williams, now the defensive coordinator in St. Louis.
Favre told Sports Illustrated's Peter King that he isn't angry but that he's glad the truth is finally revealed.
"In all honesty, there's a bounty of some kind on you on every play," he said. "Now, in that game there were some plays that, I don't want to say were odd, but I'd throw the ball and whack, on every play. Hand it off, whack. Over and over. Some were so blatant. I hand the ball to Percy Harvin early and got drilled right in the chin. They flagged that one at least."
It is naive to suggest this kind of pay-for-pain arrangement is new or limited to one coach or locker room. Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka remembers one team had a "hit-list" that included a few of his star players in the mid-1980s.
"I don't know if they were paid for it or whether they were just trying to get guys out of the game," he said. "Not going to say who it was because it doesn't matter, but it did happen to us."
It might happen more than we even know because it's impossible to distinguish between heat-of-the-moment emotion and premeditation.
Fans love those big hits that cause a collective gasp. It's fine if those bang-bang plays occur in the natural flow of the game. It crosses the line into malice, however, when a player predetermines that he's going to submarine a quarterback in the knees in order to injure him and collect some cash.
That cannot be tolerated.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org