NFC South: Spygate

We’ve weighed in from a lot of different angles on the NFL’s announcement that New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the 2012 season and defensive end Will Smith will be suspended for the first four games.

Now, let’s look at what some others are saying and writing about the NFL’s discipline.
  • John DeShazier writes that the Saints may have gotten off easy. He’s got a point. Although the season-long suspension of Vilma might have been harsher than many anticipated, things could have been a lot worse. The NFL initially said 22 to 27 players were involved in the three-year bounty program. The fact Vilma and Smith are the only current Saints facing suspensions has to come as something of a relief for an organization that probably was bracing itself to lose more players.
  • Brian Allee-Walsh has a similar take.
  • Peter King writes that, at least in terms of discipline, the Saints' bounty program has made Spygate look small. I don’t know that this thing was dramatically worse than Spygate, but the NFL obviously treated it that way.
  • You can head over to SportsNation and weigh in on if you think the Saints’ penalties were too harsh or not harsh enough.
  • New Orleans backup quarterback Chase Daniel said he was standing next to Vilma when the news about the suspensions came on television.
  • Here’s a good sampling of what current and former New Orleans players had to say about the suspensions. As you might imagine, they’re not very happy. Also, good to hear from Reggie Bush.
  • Here’s the NFL Players Association statement on the suspensions. It’s the typical NFLPA response to just about everything -- they haven’t seen enough evidence.
  • Here’s the release the NFL used to announce the suspensions, which includes details of the involvement of the players in the bounty program.
Somehow, and I’m still trying to figure exactly how, the New Orleans Saints have been dragged into yet another controversy.

Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was doing an interview with a local radio station Tuesday morning. Harbaugh was asked a question about the Saints’ bounty program and the general concept of cheating throughout the NFL.

Harbaugh didn’t say a thing about the Saints. Instead, he turned his answer toward the New England Patriots, who had their own controversy with Spygate several years ago.

“In the end, everything is brought before the light of day, when it’s all said and done,” Harbaugh said in the interview. “What happens, even the thing in New England, no matter whether those things had any impact on whether they won their championships or not, they got asterisks now. It’s been stained."

That set off a firestorm in New England, and the Ravens quickly moved into damage-control mode. The Ravens just sent out a statement from Harbaugh. Although the Saints didn’t get mentioned in his on-air words, they do get mentioned in Harabaugh’s latest statement.

“While on the 98 Rock show this morning to talk about the run to honor O.J. Brigance and raise funds for ALS research, I answered a question about playing within the rules and referred to the perception that the Super Bowl championships won by the Patriots and Saints have a stain,’’ Harbaugh said. “My reference was to the perception out there that came as the result of the league’s actions. I could have been more clear that I was referring to those viewpoints. I totally believe that the Patriot and Saint coaches and players earned those championships. Bill (Belichick) and Sean (Payton) both know that. There has been some distortion about what I said.

“The original tweet indicated I pointed the finger at Bill Belichick and mentioned Bill’s name. I did not. I have so much respect for Coach Belichick and the job he does and has accomplished in his Hall of Fame career. I called him to remind him of my respect for him. I also reached out to Tedy Bruschi, who rightfully defended those Patriot players and coaches on ESPN, to tell him that I agree with him that the Patriots earned every victory.”
Former NFL executive Bill Polian said he doesn’t understand how New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis got any competitive advantage from allegedly having the ability to listen to opposing coaches communicate during games.

“There’s something missing here,’’ said Polian, who is now an ESPN analyst. “I don’t know what kind of competitive advantage you can get. Mickey would have to know the verbiage of every other opposing team in order to translate it, and then he would have to do it instantly and find some way to communicate with his coaching staff and get it down to the field in time for it to be useful. That would be very difficult to do in my opinion.’’

That all makes a lot of sense. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Loomis to tip off his coaching staff to what opposing coaching staffs were saying seconds before the snap. It also would have been pretty much impossible for those coaches to let players know quickly enough what play was coming.

It also is extremely important to note that Loomis had the alleged ability to listen to other coaches only from a span from 2002 through 2004. That’s when Jim Haslett was coaching the team. Hurricane Katrina hit before the 2005 season, and the Saints had to play their home games in other locations that season. The report says the listening device was destroyed by the hurricane, and there are no indications it was put back into place. Haslett was fired after the 2005 season, and if Loomis was listening to play calls by opposing coaches, Haslett's record doesn't suggest it provided much of advantage.

Sean Payton was hired to replace Haslett in 2006. So you can’t tie Payton to this issue. But I still don’t see how this can mean anything positive for the Saints.

The NFL already has suspended Payton for a full season for a bounty program the league says lasted three years. Loomis also will be suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season for not stopping the bounty program.

The NFL reportedly was not aware of Loomis allegedly having had a listening device until the report came Monday afternoon and the team has denied the allegations. Loomis might not have gained any competitive advantage from allegedly having a listening device, and the allegations are from long ago when a different coaching staff was in place.

But these allegations sound a lot like Spygate, which also was something that happened in the past. The NFL -- particularly commissioner Roger Goodell -- didn’t take that situation lightly, and fined the New England Patriots $750,000. If this had come out a few years back, the Saints might be in line for a punishment similar to New England’s, if the NFL had found them guilty of the allegations.

But that was just one situation. This is different. This is coming on top of the whole bounty program.

Competitive advantage or not, this could convince Goodell to throw the book at the Saints -- even more than he already has.

Report: More trouble for Saints?

April, 23, 2012
In an offseason that has been filled with controversy for the New Orleans Saints, we now have even more.

This one doesn’t relate to the bounty program, but it could have major implications.

[+] EnlargeMickey Loomis
AP Photo/Bill HaberSaints' GM Mickey Loomis, already suspended for eight games next season, could be facing more punishment from the league.
ESPN's "Outside The Lines" just reported that New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis allegedly had an electronic device in his Superdome suite that had been secretly re-wired to enable him to eavesdrop on visiting coaching staffs for nearly three seasons, from 2002-04. That allegedly took place before coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006. Sources told "Outside The Lines" that the listening system was disabled when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and not restored. (Greg Bensel, Saints vice president of communications, said Monday on behalf of the Saints and Loomis: "This is 1,000 percent false. This is 1,000 percent inaccurate.")

This is significant on several levels. First, the report suggests that state and federal law might have been violated, and the situation has been reported to the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans. There is no indication yet if any charges will be filed. We’ll wait for law enforcement and the lawyers to figure that out. I won't even speculate about what civil liabilities Loomis and the Saints could be exposed to.

But there are huge potential implications elsewhere. Loomis is suspended without pay for the first eight games of the 2012 season for his role in not stopping the Saints’ bounty program. This latest news isn’t going to persuade commissioner Roger Goodell to shorten Loomis’ suspension.

In fact, this has the potential to lead to a longer suspension, or even more punishment for Loomis and the Saints. Although this incident allegedly took place quite a long time ago, it won't sit well with Goodell. He fined the New England Patriots $750,000 and forced them to forfeit a first-round draft pick for Spygate. You can make a case that listening to opposing coaches during a game is worse than videotaping signals on the sidelines and using that information.

Throw in the whole situation surrounding the bounty system, and I don’t see how this can lead to anything positive for Loomis or the Saints.

Saints owner Tom Benson has stood by Loomis and Payton, who is suspended for the entire 2012 season. But you must wonder if news of more alleged wrongdoing by Loomis might prompt Benson to fire his general manager.

I know Benson has other things going on. He recently purchased the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets. Brees hasn’t been able to work out a long-term contract with the Saints, and that’s not a positive for Brees, Benson or the Saints. The team is waiting to see if players will be suspended for their roles in the bounty program. Benson also reportedly has put his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, on unofficial administrative leave. LeBlanc had been viewed as the heir apparent to Benson, but it doesn’t sound as if the owner is anywhere near ready to step aside.

That might be a good thing, because the Saints have all sorts of turmoil to deal with. Someone must clean up this mess. It’s Benson’s team, so we’ll wait and see where he goes from here.

This offseason just keeps getting worse for the Saints.

History on lost draft picks

March, 21, 2012
The New Orleans Saints’ loss of a second-round draft pick this year and again in 2013 is harsh, but isn’t totally unprecedented.

Let’s turn to ESPN Stats & Information for a look at draft picks that have been forfeited for various reasons since 1980:
  • 2011 Lions forfeit seventh-round pick for tampering with Chiefs players
  • 2008 49ers forfeit fifth-round pick for tampering with Bears linebacker Lance Briggs
  • 2008 Patriots forfeit first-round pick for Spygate scandal
  • 2002-05 Broncos forfeit 2005 third-round pick, 2002 third-round pick for circumventing salary cap between 1996 and 1998
  • 2001-02 49ers forfeit 2002 third-round pick, 2001 fifth-round pick for salary cap violations
  • 2001 Steelers forfeit third-round pick for exceeding 1998 salary cap
  • 1986 Patriots forfeit third-round pick for illegal use of injured reserve list
  • 1981 Broncos forfeit third-round pick for contract violations involving Bill Thompson
  • 1981 Raiders forfeit fifth-round pick for illegally sequestering two players in 1978
  • 1980 Eagles forfeit third-round pick for holding illegal tryout
  • 1980 Raiders forfeit fourth-round pick for evasion of player limit
Sean Payton is one of the three or five best head coaches in the NFL. He’s won a Super Bowl and helped a city and a region recover from Hurricane Katrina.

He’s the most brilliant offensive mind of our time and he’s had winning seasons every year since 2008.

[+] EnlargeSaints coach Sean Payton
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesSean Payton should also face repercussions for the bounty program that took place with his Saints.
So why are people suddenly calling for the coach of the New Orleans Saints to be fired?

It’s not about football. It’s about a lot more.

Check out this column from colleague Ashley Fox, who writes that Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis should be fired for their role in what the NFL says was a “bounty program’’ in which New Orleans coaches and players pooled money to reward defenders when they injured opponents. We’re not talking about $500 for an interception. We’re talking that much or more for intentionally injuring an opponent.

I’ve thought long and hard about what punishments Loomis and Payton should face since the news broke on Friday. I’ve come to the conclusion that I agree totally with Fox.

Payton and Loomis have to go. It's harsh, but it's warranted, probably even necessary. If they're not fired, Payton and Loomis should be suspended, probably for a full season.

I know former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is being portrayed as the main culprit in all this. Williams is gone and now is the coordinator in St. Louis. The league is looking into allegations that he did similar programs at other stops in his career. It seems pretty likely that Williams, who has admitted to and apologized for running the program in New Orleans, will end up being suspended or maybe even banned from coaching.

But punishing Williams doesn’t punish the Saints and they’ve more than earned that. They used the bounties for three years.

To simply say Williams was the bad guy and Payton and Loomis shouldn’t suffer any consequences is ridiculous. They’re more guilty than Williams because they held higher positions.

Anyone who knows anything about the Saints knows that Payton runs every aspect of the organization and knows everything that goes on in the building. The league’s report said Payton knew about the program and did nothing to stop it.

Hmm, I can think of several big-name college coaches who went down through the years because they didn’t do enough when scandals enveloped their programs and a lot of people felt they should be held to a higher standard because they were head coaches.

We’re not talking about the NCAA here. We’re talking the NFL and allegations of anything that was designed to intentionally injure players couldn’t come at a worse time in history. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been making all sorts of noise about player safety. The lockout and labor negotiations last year were largely about player safety and we’ve seen new rules put in to cut down on offseason workouts and heard lots of other talk about the importance of player safety. How many stories have we seen about concussions in recent years?

Payton, in essence, thumbed his nose at player safety the last three years. Should he be fired because of it? Cast your vote in the accompanying SportsNation poll. I say he has to go.

Same for any assistant coach still on staff that knew anything about the bounty program. Yeah, it’s tough to fire a coach in March. But the Saints need to be proactive on this. If they keep the current staff in place for the 2012 season, I’m telling you right now every game will resemble a boxing match. Opposing teams would go after the Saints because the Saints went after them. I don’t think the league wants boxing matches these days.

The Saints have defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on staff. He wasn’t around when this stuff was going on. He’s been a head coach in St. Louis and has a clean reputation around the league.

What about Loomis? I think he’s got to go as well. Although Payton definitely played the dominant role in this coach-general manager relationship, Loomis has carried the title of general manager. In theory, that means managing an organization overall and maintaining the integrity of a franchise would seem to be part of the job description.

The NFL report says Loomis was told by owner Tom Benson to stop the bounty program. The NFL also said Loomis failed to follow through on that.

I know a lot of other general managers that would immediately do what they were told by an owner. Loomis didn’t do that and therefore failed in his duty to uphold the integrity of the franchise and the league. Heck, once the New England Patriots were hit with Spygate, all talk of them filming other teams ceased — perhaps not coincidentally, they haven't won a Super Bowl since.

Loomis and Payton have done many great things for the Saints and New Orleans. But they failed their team, their city and the NFL by allowing this disgraceful practice to go on for three years. Somebody has to pay the price on this one.

Weigh in on the Saints' scandal

March, 5, 2012

SportsNation has six polls up on what has suddenly become the hottest topic in sports -- the New Orleans Saints and the “bounty program’’ the NFL says they ran the past three seasons.

I urge you to go over there and vote and voice your opinions in the comments section below.

I just hit the polls and will reveal my vote (and logic) on each question to start the conversation.

In the top question about how the Saints should be punished, I voted for “all of the above." In other words, I’m saying they should be fined, players, coaches and perhaps even general manager Mickey Loomis should be suspended, and the team should have to forfeit draft picks. My logic on this is simple: This is some really bad stuff.

Don’t tell me “football’s a physical game’’ and this sort of thing “happens everywhere." There might be some truth in that. But we’re not debating whether football’s a physical game. We’re talking about a bounty system former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams already has admitted to. The league is saying Loomis was told to put a stop to the program, but didn’t. The league also says coach Sean Payton knew of the program and did nothing to stop it. Heck, I want to hear more details, but there’s a part of me that thinks suspensions for Payton and Loomis might not be harsh enough. If what the league says is true, I’m thinking the roles of Loomis and Payton in all this perhaps should cost them their jobs.

The second question is about whether using bounties in the NFL is fair or foul. I voted for foul. Again, we are talking about a physical game. But we’re also talking about what the NFL clearly says was an organized system that rewarded defenders for injuring other players. That’s against NFL rules. It might even be against some other rules.

The third question made me think a little harder than the first two. It asks whether it’s fair or foul to have a bounty system for defensive plays that don’t induce injury but do result in touchdowns, sacks, interceptions, etc. While that may violate the NFL’s salary cap, I don’t have a big problem with that. If a guy gets a sack or returns an interception for a touchdown and his teammates throw him $500 or $1,000, I don’t think it’s a big deal. Sort of reminds me of when I was playing high school baseball. The sportswriter for our hometown paper used to give us a quarter (this was a long time ago, and inflation probably has raised the going rate to 50 cents) for each RBI. I’ll admit, I was guilty of accepting a few quarters.

The fourth question is about how widespread bounty systems are in the NFL. The choices are that all teams have them, most teams have them or some teams have them. I went with some teams. I don’t think the Saints are alone in this, but I don’t think all or most teams do it, and I doubt any program was as structured as what was going on in New Orleans.

The fifth question is whether bounty programs help with team chemistry. I voted yes. Not saying bounty programs are right by any means, but I don’t think having a common goal hurts team chemistry in the least bit.

The final question is about whether the Saints deserve a harsher penalty than the Patriots got (the loss of a first-round draft pick and a fine) for Spygate. I said the Saints deserve a harsher penalty. In Spygate, there were a lot of allegations, but most of them weren’t proved to be true as the case played out. In the case of the Saints, it sounds like the league already has confirmed a bunch of serious allegations, and it’s simply a matter of time until commissioner Roger Goodell, who is big on player-safety issues, hands out his ruling on discipline. I expect it to be harsh. The Patriots may have broken some rules. The Saints, by intentionally attempting to hurt opponents, clearly broke NFL rules and maybe more than that.