NFC West: Saints Bounty

Jonathan Vilma and other current/former suspended New Orleans Saints players won reversals Friday.

What it means for the NFC West:
  • The decision clears Vilma to play against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12 (and all season). Vilma had previously been suspended for the full season. The other suspended players either would have returned before facing the 49ers (Will Smith) or no longer play for New Orleans (Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove). Vilma is an important part of the Saints' defense. Having him should help against the 49ers' running game.
  • Vilma's availability to the Saints could enable the team to part with Barrett Ruud, the linebacker acquired from Seattle by trade last month. The Seahawks are in line to receive a late-round draft choice from the Saints in return if Ruud remains on New Orleans' roster for an undisclosed number of games. Seattle appears less likely to collect on that trade now that Vilma is available.
  • The reversals affected players, not coaches. The St. Louis Rams will remain without Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely after becoming defensive coordinator for St. Louis.
Full story here.
Some aspire to have their work published in the most exalted academic journals. Others are more likely to find themselves wallowing in profanity-laced bounty files.

Let the wallowing begin.

Alas, the NFC West blog makes an unexpected appearance in the NFL bounty files made public Monday through the NFL Players Association. The files contain R-rated language, so if you're sensitive to such things or risking your job by downloading them, be warned.

For example, the page referencing the NFC West blog contains a large, red headline in capital letters: "Mike F------ Karney," it reads. Karney had played for New Orleans previously, but he was with the St. Louis Rams in 2009. Before the Saints and Rams played that season, someone with New Orleans put together a file using this NFC West blog entry to mock Karney, who hadn't factored into a recent Rams game.

Here's the funny part: Karney played a significant and positive role for the Rams in that subsequent game against New Orleans. The Rams averaged 13.1 yards per carry and 10.7 yards per pass attempt against the Saints from their base offense, which featured Karney.

Another page from the bounty files says "dues" were needed before New Orleans played the Rams. Another shows Rams photos, including one of then-quarterback Marc Bulger on the ground. There are pages showing what appear to be bounty payouts. Others document "kill the head" totals.

The material contains strategic information for Saints opponents, including tendencies by personnel groupings.

One page asks and answers up to 13 questions for each of the Rams' offensive position groups.

Steven Jackson was a "good screen back" while Kenneth Darby was "quick." The Saints told their defensive players that receiver Keenan Burton "can be pressed" and to "get hands on" Donnie Avery. They noted that the left tackle, Alex Barron, lined up wider on draw plays. They did not fear tight end Randy McMichael as a blocker. They said the Rams had run 71 percent of the time from base personnel when Billy Bajema was in the game.

The Saints respected Bulger's hard count and warned against quick counts between the 40-yard lines. They doubted his ball security and noted that he pats the ball right before throwing, letting defenders get a jump.

There's even a play sheet the Saints prepared for their playoff game against Seattle that season. If the term "N FRISCO SASSY/FLASH SINGLE" means anything to you, the Saints' play sheet should make for a good read.

A subsequent Seahawks-related page shows photos of Matt Hasselbeck, Mike Williams, Marshawn Lynch, "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and a soldier's view through a gun scope.

Several bullet points accompany the photos. The final two bullet points read, "Now its time to do our job...collect bounty$$$!" and "No apologies! Let's go hunting!"

Of course, the Seahawks defeated the Saints in that playoff game. The Saints have gone 5-4 against the NFC West since 2009, counting playoffs.
Brock Huard, Mike Salk and I discussed Chris Clemons and select NFC West quarterback situations during our conversation Monday.

They've made available audio.

As much as I'd love to further explore some of the subject material in this item, something else has caught my attention.

The NFL Players Association has made available on its website exhibits relating to the NFL bounty scandal. There are references to New Orleans Saints games against NFC West opponents. I'm downloading those and going through them. Anyone care to help? We can discuss in the comments as we find stuff. Could be an interesting group project.

Parental guidance suggested: The files available for download contain profanity.
The word "concussion" came up zero times during the most recent NFC West chat. There was one "bounty" question, but I didn't get around to answering it during the chat.

"Do you think Kurt Warner would have come back for another year if he wouldn't have been smashed by the Saints after his interception in Bounty Gate?" Tony from Richmond, Calif., wanted to know.

Warner was headed toward retirement regardless, in my view. The Cardinals might have gotten him to reconsider had they offered a dramatic in crease in pay, but that is purely speculative. Warner was ready for retirement.

Full chat transcript here. Highlights below:
SeniorSwick from Montclair, N.J. asks whether any NFL teams take as many chances as the Seahawks when it comes to creativity, scheme and personnel. He points to the team's decision to convert new draft choice J.R. Sweezy from defense to offense.

Mike Sando: The 49ers converted Bruce Miller from college defensive end to fullback and got good play from him last season. Miller had not played offense since high school. Sweezy, like Miller, was a later-round pick. Teams have greater freedom to experiment with later-round choices. The key is to be creative without over-thinking things. More broadly, the concern in building around specialized or somewhat unique players -- think Red Bryant for Seattle -- is that specialized players can be tough to replace if injured. However, that is where staff flexibility can make up the difference. The Seahawks seem to have a good defensive staff and approach. Another potential concern relative to Sweezy is what the move represents: a clear push by an assistant coach to get a player he liked. Tom Cable also drove the selection of James Carpenter a year ago. Drafting players to fit the staff is important, but we should also watch to see if assistants have too much sway.

Ken from Anaheim, Calif., seeks a heads up on any Rams rookies who might become starters. All the early draft choices should be considered. I focused on undrafted players when putting together an answer.

Mike Sando: Watch the linebackers in general, Ken. That was a position of great need that the Rams didn't address sufficiently in the draft. As a result, the better free-agent linebackers were eager to consider the Rams; those players knew their chances would be better in St. Louis than elsewhere. Derrick Choice from Stephen F. Austin, Alex Hoffman-Ellis from Washington State and Noah Keller from Ohio State were the undrafted free-agent linebackers St. Louis signed recently. Seventh-round pick Aaron Brown is also new to the team.

Brandon Cards Fan from Arizona asks whether the offensive linemen the Cardinals drafted from the fourth through seventh rounds might see the starting rotation or play extensively as rookies.

Mike Sando: Yes, I think fourth-round choice Bobby Massie figures to get some starts at right tackle this season -- either out of necessity or because he wins the job. Jeremy Bridges would be the veteran fallback at right tackle. Moving right guard Adam Snyder into that spot would be another option, but that could weaken two positions. I could see Bridges opening the season as the starter at right tackle, with Massie taking over during the season.

The fun continues. I'm tentatively scheduled to join NFL Live some time after 3:30 p.m. ET for additional thoughts on Ben Roethlisberger's comments regarding the 49ers.

A young Bill Romanowski famously infuriated teammate Harris Barton and others by taking undue shots at Jerry Rice during San Francisco 49ers practices.

With that in mind, it should come as no shock to hear that an opponent might have slapped a bounty on Romanowski's head back when NFL mayhem went largely unregulated.

That doesn't mean it happened.

To review, Cris Carter says Romanowski threatened to injure him early in a game.

Carter says he bought protection for himself by offering free dinners for offensive linemen if they could get him through the game unscathed.

It's the latest opportunity to misapply the word "bounty" to an NFL scenario, and it's predictably happening.

Carter's comments have brought Romanowski, a two-time Super Bowl winner with the 49ers, back into the news as a corollary to the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. I'm struggling to see the connection. How about you?

Offering cash for intentionally inflicting injuries on specific players bears little relation to one teammate looking out for another in the manner Carter described.

While Romanowski has denied he made injury threats, Carter would have been justified taking seriously any promises Romanowski might have made.

Romanowski's reputation as a dirty player had roots in his days with San Francisco. "Romo" left little doubt through subsequent actions while with Denver and Oakland, including the time he spit in J.J. Stokes' face and attacked teammate Marcus Williams.

The gap between the New Orleans Saints' savagely stated intentions and their on-field actions provides an opening to question the punishment handed down by commissioner Roger Goodell.

Jonathan Vilma's season-long suspension for helping to establish and fund the program carries particular interest in the NFC West.

"Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Vilma offered a specific bounty -- $10,000 in cash -- to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 divisional playoff game and later pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game the following week," the NFL announced in meting out the punishment.

Saints defensive end Bobby McCray did knock Warner from the game for a time with a crushing hit following an interception, but Warner himself feels as though the Saints did not cross a line with their actions that day.

Warner's comments to Burns & Gambo on Arizona Sports 620 made clear his feelings:
"I could have been seriously hurt every time I stepped on that football field. There is no question that players went out to hurt me and knock me out of games many times throughout my career, whether or not there was a $10,000 bounty on me. Again, I look at it and say, 'Did somebody hit me harder in that situation because the bounty was there?' I don't know. I don't believe so. I believe that was a situation [on the McCray hit] that was set up perfectly for any defensive player, and any defensive player would have taken it. And it was a clean hit and it was a bigger man hitting a smaller man who wasn't prepared for it. And i got crushed.

"I would be mad if someone took a shot at me that was outside the rules of engagement to try to hurt me. If i got hurt because of that, then I would be extremely angry and to me that would cross way over that line.

"I believe that there have been defensive linemen in the locker room many a times say, 'Hey, the first one to knock Kurt out of the game, I'm buying dinner or I'm doing this after the game or whatever. I believe that stuff has gone on for years and years and years. And it wasn't the intention of taking a cheap shot. It was the intention of giving their team a benefit from knocking out a good player on the other team. No doubt in my mind, that that has gone on for years.

"There have been games where I felt like, 'They're really just trying to take me out of this game. They're going a little above and beyond.' I didn't feel that in that playoff game against the Saints. I felt it was a good, hard, competitive football game where the hits on me were clean."

While Goodell is punishing the Saints specifically, he's attacking the bounty mind-set in general. Punishing Vilma and the Saints so harshly may or may not be fair to them. The NFL culture is the broader target.

Vilma and the Saints aren't being punished this week for the hits they put on Warner. League officials already reviewed those hits after the game as a matter of course. The punishment attacks the intentions and makes it easier for the NFL to counter in court allegations it hasn't taken player safety seriously enough.

Note: The video above features discussion on the punishment for Vilma and other players. Warner did not participate in that discussion.
LZ Granderson's column makes a strong case for Gregg Williams' return to the NFL and (presumably) the St. Louis Rams for the 2013 season.

Granderson cites examples of players returning to the NFL following illegal or prohibited activity. He says Williams was suspended for actions commonplace enough for the Saints to let a documentary film crew record them.

"In March 2009, Donte' Stallworth got drunk, got in his car and hit a pedestrian, killing him," Granderson wrote. "He was convicted of manslaughter and was suspended by the league … but not for long. He was reinstated after missing a season and signed with the Ravens. He has a lifetime suspension of his Florida driver's license, but in March he signed as a free agent with the New England Patriots."

Williams is reportedly seeking a framework for reinstatement. The league has indicated it could issue conditions if and when allowing Williams back into the game.

"Commissioner Roger Goodell will review Coach Williams’ status at the conclusion of the 2012 season and consider whether to reinstate him, and, if so, on what terms," the NFL said in announcing Williams' suspension. "Commissioner Goodell said he will give close attention to the extent to which Coach Williams cooperates with the NFL in any further proceedings."

Williams has, by all accounts, cooperated.

News reports recently said Williams assisted tornado victims in Missouri. Other reports said certain San Francisco 49ers still thought highly of Williams, even though he encouraged New Orleans Saints players to injured various 49ers during the playoffs last season.

Those types of stories can help shape public perceptions. They could score points with Goodell. Williams has also accepted his punishment meekly, declining to pursue an appeal. That should help him, too.

There is no NFL merit badge for reinstatement, however. Giving Williams a clear path back to the NFL would give him an easy way out. I'm more inclined to think the league will make Williams sweat a little.
The New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt won the potential for financial relief after appealing their bounty-related punishments to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The bulk of their appeals failed, however, affirming Gregg Williams' strategy as the right one for his situation.

Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, decided against appealing, and for good reason:
  • The contrition factor: Williams was the brashest and most flagrant violator of NFL rules. His eventual reinstatement depends upon the sincerity of his contrition. Appealing the commissioner's decision would have sent the wrong message on that front.
  • Suspension length: The league handed down well-defined suspensions to Payton, Loomis and Vitt. Williams was suspended indefinitely. It would be tougher to appeal "indefinitely" than to appeal a set amount of games. The commissioner had already said he would review Williams' case following the 2012 season. Shortening that time frame would have been unrealistic. If and when Williams does return, he'll do so most effectively between seasons.

The best strategy for Williams will be to keep a low profile in the short term, cooperate fully with any future investigations and, eventually, to publicly explain the error of his ways.

Williams, though widely scorned at this point, will have opportunities to redefine himself through outreach programs and charitable works. Sports figures routinely draw from their own mistakes in advising others to take different paths.

This will be a tough transition for Williams, with no guarantees for success. His decision against appealing marked a small step in the right direction.


Darren Woodson and Tedy Bruschi recently discussed whether Gregg Williams' indefinite suspension from the NFL should become a lifetime ban.

Just about everyone should get a second chance, Woodson said, and Bruschi largely agreed.

Whether Williams deserves a second chance and whether he will get one are separate issues.

The NFL, faced with hundreds of player-safety lawsuits, has much invested in making an example out of Williams and the New Orleans Saints for their bounty-related violations. Fair or not, the league gains more legally and politically from a lifetime ban than from welcoming back the person most directly associated with bounties.

A recently released audio recording brought to life the allegations in a manner that further damaged Williams. After hearing the recording, I doubted whether Williams, now the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator, would ever coach again in the NFL.

But the backlash against Williams could fade over time. Woodson and Bruschi sounded amenable to the NFL clearing Williams following the 2012 season.
Listening to Gregg Williams implore New Orleans Saints players to target various San Francisco 49ers has triggered varied reactions.

Randy Cross, retired 49ers offensive lineman and current analyst for Sirius radio, brushed off Williams' speech as so much pregame bluster.

"So the NFL Media Nanny State gets all up in arms about a FB coach espousing violent behavior," Cross tweeted. "You people are clueless about the game."

Ken Williams, father of 49ers receiver Kyle Williams, took a different stance after hearing Gregg Williams tell Saints players to target Kyle Williams' concussion.

"Personally, suspension or not, it's probably best I'm never in a room with Gregg Williams and wonder if such an order crosses the lines of the aggressive, competitive spirit we all know and love about the sport and leans closer to a criminal act and therefore litigious matter," Ken Williams said in a statement to the Chicago Tribune.

Kyle Williams has not spoken publicly on the matter. Gregg Williams issued a general apology last month, but nothing since audio recordings emerged featuring comments such as this one from the Saints' former defensive coordinator, now with St. Louis: "We need to find out in the first two series of the game, that little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion. We need to f---ing put a lick on him right now. He needs to decide. He needs to f---ing decide."

Kyle Williams has nothing to gain from speaking out on the matter. Ken Williams' comments are understandable. Comments such as the one Cross made seem to miss the distinction between playing violently and, say, specifically targeting Michael Crabtree's ACL, as Williams did on the recording.

"Playing hard and hitting hard is one thing," former Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor tweeted. "Going after ACL's and heads ... not cool."


Gregg Williams' NFL career was already endangered before audio recordings proved he ordered players to inflict specific injuries on specific San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs last season. He's likely finished now. If this doesn't finish him, what will it take?

Before considering the effect of these revelations, let's absorb what Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, told New Orleans players regarding the 49ers when he was the Saints' defensive coordinator.
  • On running back Frank Gore: "We've got to do everything in the world to make sure we kill Frank Gore's head. We want him running sideways. We want his head sideways."
  • On running back Kendall Hunter: "Little 32, we're going to knock the f--- out of him."
  • On quarterback Alex Smith: "Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head. Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head."
  • On receiver Kyle Williams: "We need to find out in the first two series of the game, that little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion. We need to f---ing put a lick on him right now. He needs to decide. He needs to f---ing decide."
  • On receiver Michael Crabtree: "We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a fake-ass prima donna, or he wants to be a tough guy. We need to find out. He becomes human when we f---ing take out that outside ACL."
  • On tight end Vernon Davis: "We need to decide how many times we can bull rush and we can f---ing put Vernon Davis' ankles over the pile."

Listening to Williams speak so casually about injuring opponents leaves the strong impression that these sorts of orders were routine for him. He made the comments with a documentary film crew present. Williams was not giving these orders secretly. He was not hiding his activities from his bosses. To the contrary, he was reveling in them, repeatedly saying the Saints should never apologize for how they play.

Williams is now sorry, of course -- sorry for getting caught.

Pro football is a tough, brutal sport. We're deluding ourselves if we suggest coaches and players have never said horrible things about the damage they plan to inflict upon opponents. But to hear a defensive coordinator calmly hand down such specific orders, even rubbing his fingers together while saying he'd pay players for inflicting injuries, affirms the darkest suspicions about Williams' true intentions.

Williams is not without enablers. His comments represented the take-no-prisoners approach that made him beloved among players and coveted as a coordinator within the culture NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is now trying to dismantle in the long-term interests of the game. Williams defined himself by that culture.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher previously said the team never would have hired Williams if Fisher known his longtime friend would be facing an indefinite suspension. How can he take back Williams now that the world has heard these tapes? The NFL, armed with these recordings, should think harder about allowing Williams to return.

It's implausible to think Williams suddenly stumbled upon these tactics days before playing the 49ers. He's been coaching in the NFL for two decades. We can assume Williams made similar comments during previous coaching stops. What did Fisher know about the pregame speeches Williams gave when the two were together in Tennessee and Houston? Williams and his enablers have lost the benefit of the doubt. They must account for what they knew.

"There’s a great deal of information out there that we will never know, so I can’t really comment on the specifics of that and place blame on anybody," Fisher said last month. "This was a very extensive investigation and there’s a lot out there that, I would assume, would not be disclosed. So I have to reserve comment on that because I know that, never at any time, as far as I’ve been with him, has he disrespected this game from the standpoint of you try to hurt somebody on purpose. He has a passion for this game and a passion for playing hard-nosed, aggressive defense. I think there’s a lot out there that will probably be locked up in a drawer some place."

That drawer has been unlocked. What else is in there?

If Williams ever did rejoin the Rams, we could anticipate 49ers coaches playing those tapes for their players heading into twice-annual division games against St. Louis. NFC West matchups became rough-and-tumble affairs last season as San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona fielded increasingly physical defenses. The Rams thought Williams could give them a needed edge. That seems ridiculous now that the bounty scandal has forced contrition upon a figure whose entire NFL identity relied upon an unapologetic nature.

"Another thing we always say in this room is, never apologize for the way we compete," Williams told Saints players on the recordings. "If you're in this room, you understand that we do not apologize."

Williams is apologizing now because his career depends upon it. He has no choice. But he's lost all credibility in the process. Three months after the 49ers knocked the Saints from the playoffs, Williams appears down for the count.
The evidence against Gregg Williams continues to mount, renewing questions about whether the indefinitely suspended defensive coordinator can credibly resume his career in the NFL.

The latest revelations -- profanity-laced recorded comments Williams made to New Orleans Saints players before their playoff game at San Francisco -- are chilling in their specificity. Time and again, Williams encouraged players to injure specific opponents, from Michael Crabtree to Frank Gore to Alex Smith to Kyle Williams.

Given these recordings, it's for the best that Williams, now with the St. Louis Rams, declined to appeal his suspension relating to the Saints' bounty scandal. There can be no defending what he said.

Pro Football Talk has transcribed some of the comments. Yahoo! Sports' Mike Silver also has a column on the matter. I listened to the comments and transcribed them for this item.

"Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head," Williams told Saints players one day before the 49ers defeated New Orleans in the wild-card round. "Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head."

There was more. Much more.

"We need to find out in the first two series of the game, the little wide receiver, No. 10, about his concussion," Williams said, referring to Kyle Williams. "We need to [expletive] put a lick on him right now."

Williams also indicated the Saints should take out Crabtree's knee.

"We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a fake ass prima donna or he wants to be a tough guy," Williams told players. "We need to find it out. He becomes human when we [expletive] take out that outside ACL."

On and on it went.

Williams encouraged players to hit Smith under the chin, referring back to the "big eyes" Smith got when the Saints hit him repeatedly during the exhibition opener. He wanted the Saints to take out all the 49ers' key players, noting repeatedly that his team should not apologize for how it plays the game.

"We need to decide on how many times we can beat Frank Gore's head," Williams said.

Williams allegedly punctuated some of his comments with a hand gesture indicating he would pay cash for injuring the 49ers. These are damning tapes further cementing Williams' reputation for crossing the line.

Looks like we'll have even more than anticipated to discuss on the blog Thursday.

Elsewhere in the division ...

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News offers thoughts on the 49ers not facing the Raiders in the preseason.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Reggie Smith's departure from the 49ers in free agency further guts what remains of the team's 2008 draft class. Barrows: "According to a source, Smith, an unrestricted free agent, told the 49ers in his exit interview in January that he was not interested in returning to the team, presumably because he knew his chances of starting were slim with Dashon Goldson on the roster. The 49ers made Goldson their franchise player, although he has yet to sign the tender. The top three safeties for 2012 appear to be Goldson, strong safety Donte Whitner and C.J. Spillman. Madieu Williams, who also is a free agent, could return."

Taylor Price of 49ers.com says players are working out informally at team headquarters in advance of the voluntary offseason workout program.

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis quotes new Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan saying he wanted to play for Williams. Finnegan: "Every player you talk to says what a great coach he is. I was so excited to have a chance to play for him. He has a great defense and players love playing in that defense."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says recently retired former Rams receiver Torry Holt downplayed talk about the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Holt: "Shoot, we've got to get Cris Carter in the Hall, we have to get Andre Reed in the Hall, we've got to get Tim Brown in the Hall before we even start mentioning anything about Torry Holt being in the Hall."

Also from Thomas: notes from Holt's retirement news conference. Holt on whether signing a one-day contract would let him suit up: "I was speaking to Carla, my wife, and said, 'You know what? It would probably be cool if I called (equipment manager) Jimmy Lake and I had him set up my locker and get my cleats, and get my gloves, get my baggy shorts, and let me run one more deep seven (route). Shoot it out of the JUGS machine and I could catch it for a touchdown.' ... You know what? That'd be too much. Let's act like an adult here, I guess."

More from Thomas: The Rams have interest in free agent receiver Jerome Simpson.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune makes available draft analyst Rob Rang for a discussion focusing mostly on the Seahawks. Rang: "I believe Coby Fleener is going to wind up as a top 20 pick. There are few teams with obvious needs at TE to warrant such a pick, but coming off a 2011 season in which Gronk, Graham, etc. demonstrated just how effective these matchup nightmares can be, I believe some team is going to shock everyone. That team could be Seattle. If you're going to build a team around a relatively weak-armed QB, he'd damn well better have some weapons."

Brock Huard of 710ESPN Seattle explains why he thinks the Seahawks' were true to form in letting David Hawthorne sign with New Orleans.

Aaron Wilson of the Carroll County Times says the Seahawks met with Patriots free agent defensive back Antwaun Molden.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic has this to say about the Cardinals' preseason schedule: "It will be the eighth time in the past nine seasons that the Cardinals have played the Broncos in the final preseason game."

Also from Somers: Levi Brown re-signed with the Cardinals shortly after the team visited with free-agent tackle Demetress Bell. Somers: "Coincidence? Maybe. The Cardinals paid Brown a $7 million signing bonus. Earlier in free agency they signed guard/tackle Adam Snyder to a five-year deal that included a $5 million signing bonus. The Cardinals remained interested in Bell, but it was questionable if they were going to write another big check for an offensive lineman."

More from Somers: The Cardinals have their key specialists under contract.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com looks at options for Arizona on the offensive line. He quotes line coach Russ Grimm on Adam Snyder: "He was tops on our free agent list as far as offensive line was concerned. He’s a big physical guy, he's smart, he has played a number of positions. Right now we have him penciled in at right guard but if we have to move it around before camp we’ll move it around."

NFL Power Rankings: How they voted

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
12:00
PM ET



Crushing bounty-related penalties levied against the New Orleans Saints forced a re-vote in ESPN.com's first NFL Power Rankings looking ahead to the 2012 season.

We planned to run the rankings after Peyton Manning signed with Denver, figuring that would be a good time to reassess the NFL landscape. Voters cast ballots by Tuesday. But when the Saints' punishment came down Wednesday, complete with a one-year suspension for coach Sean Payton, one of the highest-ranked teams was suddenly reeling.

Every panelist downgraded the Saints. John Clayton pointed to the Payton suspension as the single greatest blow. He saw New Orleans dropping from 12 to nine victories.

"Payton's mind, play-calling ability and leadership will be impossible to replace," Clayton wrote. "Payton took a Super Bowl ring away from Peyton Manning with his decision-making. His call for an onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV is a classic example of how a coach can win a game. Plus, his creative game plans and bold gambles will be missed."

The Saints and Oakland Raiders each dropped nine spots from our most recent rankings, which ran after the regular season. The Broncos climbed six spots to No. 8 after adding Manning as voters hedged somewhat over Manning's health. The Chicago Bears jumped a league-high 10 spots as voters anticipated Jay Cutler's return to the lineup.

The New York Giants were a near-unanimous No. 1 after winning the Super Bowl. Clayton ranked them fifth while other voters figured the defending champs should start at the top. "Unless they suffer giant losses, the Super Bowl champs deserve to be No. 1 in any preseason poll," voter Paul Kuharsky said. "That is my default setting."

And now, a closer look at the ranking, beginning with a look at how teams changed (or did not change) in the rankings from Week 18 last season:

Falling (15): New Orleans Saints (-9), Oakland Raiders (-9), Cincinnati Bengals (-8), Atlanta Falcons (-5), Miami Dolphins (-4), Tennessee Titans (-4), Pittsburgh Steelers (-3), Arizona Cardinals (-3), Green Bay Packers (-2), Cleveland Browns (-2), Dallas Cowboys (-1), San Francisco 49ers (-1), Minnesota Vikings (-1), Seattle Seahawks (-1), New York Jets (-1).

Rising (14): Chicago Bears (+10), New York Giants (+8), Denver Broncos (+6), Carolina Panthers (+5), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+5), Kansas City Chiefs (+5), Houston Texans (+4), Philadelphia Eagles (+3), Buffalo Bills (+2), St. Louis Rams (+2), New England Patriots (+2), Detroit Lions (+1), San Diego Chargers (+1), Washington Redskins (+1).

Unchanged (3): Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars.

Deadlocked: We broke four ties. Denver prevailed over Pittsburgh at No. 8 based on the first tiebreaker, head-to-head results. New Orleans edged Philadelphia at No. 11 based on the second tiebreaker, overall record. Arizona edged Seattle at No. 21, also on overall record. St. Louis beat out Cleveland at No. 29 based on head-to-head results.

Like minds: Only one spot separated high and low votes for the Packers, 49ers and Cowboys. Two spots separated high and low votes for the Patriots, Saints, Chiefs and Vikings.

Agree to disagree: Ten spots separated high and low votes for the Cardinals. Panelist James Walker ranked them only 27th, 10 spots lower than Paul Kuharsky and Ashley Fox ranked them.

"I think the Cardinals are stuck in the mud with Kevin Kolb," Walker said. "He's not a franchise quarterback, and the Cardinals can only go as far as Kolb takes them. Arizona has to live with that mistake for at least another year or two."

Walker, who covers the AFC East, was much higher on Buffalo. He ranked the Bills at No. 16. Everyone else had them between 22nd and 25th.

"The Bills have done everything right this offseason," Walker said. "I expect them to take the next step to at least the middle of the pack in 2012 -- if not more. It's not just the Mario Williams signing. Buffalo also gets back a healthy Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams."

A look at the teams generating high-low disparities of at least seven spots in the rankings:
  • Cardinals (10): Kuharsky and Fox ranked them 17th, higher than any other voter ranked them. Walker ranked them 27th, lower than any other voter ranked them.
  • Bills (9): Walker 16th, Sando 25th.
  • Panthers (8): Kuharsky and Fox 16th, Clayton 24th.
  • Bengals (8): Walker 14th, Kuharsky and Fox 22nd.
  • Jets (8): Clayton 15th, Sando 22nd.
  • Seahawks (8): Sando 17th, Kuharsky 25th.
  • Buccaneers (8): Clayton 19th, Kuharsky 27th.
  • Titans (7): Sando 16th, Walker 23rd.
Power Rankings histories: These colorful layered graphs show where each NFL team has ranked every week since the 2002 season.

Ranking the divisions: Teams from the NFC East ranked 12.8 on average, highest for any division. That was a change from Week 18 last season, when the AFC North and NFC North were 1-2 in highest overall ranking average.


A voter-by-voter look at changes of at least five spots since Week 18:
  • Sando: Bengals (-9), Saints (-8), Dolphins (-5), Raiders (-5), Titans (-5), Broncos (+6), Buccaneers (+7), Giants (+8), Bears (+12).
  • Clayton: Raiders (-13), Saints (-9), Bengals (-8), Giants (+6), Eagles (+8), Buccaneers (+9), Bears (+10).
  • Kuharsky: Bengals (-11), Saints (-9), Titans (-7), Raiders (-6), Dolphins (-6), Panthers (+5), Broncos (+5), Chiefs (+6), Redskins (+7), Giants (+9), Bears (+9).
  • Walker: Saints (-9), Titans (-9), Dolphins (-9), Raiders (-6), Falcons (-6), Steelers (-6), Cardinals (-6), Texans (+6), Giants (+7), Bills (+8), Broncos (+8), Buccaneers (+9), Bears (+9).
  • Fox: Bengals (-12), Saints (-10), Raiders (-7), Titans (-6), Falcons (-6), Jets (-5), Texans (+5), Redskins (+6), Panthers (+7), Giants (+8), Bears (+10).
Note: No Excel file this time. The file sheds light on potential voting inconsistencies during the season, when on-field results can be used as a reference.
Severe punishment handed down to the New Orleans Saints moved their bounty scandal into the No. 2 spot, past Spygate, on our recent list of top NFL scandals.

Some thought it should have outranked the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal, a subject Mike Golic and Doug Gottlieb debated Wednesday on Mike & Mike in the Morning .

There was too much happening too quickly -- Alex Smith re-signing, Jeff Fisher holding a news conference, etc. -- for me to join the discussion Wednesday. Thanks to those who reached out to offer their opinions on the matter.

"Mike Vick at the 1 spot? Drop that to 2," DrHawk12 wrote. "Yeah, cruelty to animals, but Saints performed cruelty to humans. It's that simple."

Not quite.

The Saints' bounty scandal will not deprive them of their best player, Drew Brees. While Vick's behavior was decried almost universally, the Saints' actions initially provoked debate among fans and players over whether the Saints had even done anything wrong. Some still see the NFL's punishment as hypocritical, over the top and unwarranted.

It also remains unknown how much the punishment will affect the Saints' on-field success.

Vick was convicted of a felony and went to prison in his prime. He had a $100 million contract and was the face of the franchise. His demise sent the Falcons spiraling into a 4-12 season.

I was initially inclined to rank Spygate over the bounty scandal on the merits, but the punishment against the Saints was so much stronger. As always there was room for debate.

"Yeah, filming someone is way worse than intentionally trying to injure someone or send them off in a cart," Ultrawolf123 cracked.

The chart below, from ESPN Stats & Information, shows which teams have lost draft choices as punishment since 1980.


The St. Louis Rams will be without defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for at least the 2012 season.

More significantly, the man Rams coach Jeff Fisher thought he was hiring -- brash, unapologetic and full of swagger -- will never coach again. The NFL has banished that version of Williams forever.

The indefinite suspension levied against Williams attacks the brashness that differentiated him from other coordinators. It was part of his essence as a coach and his appeal to the Rams. Contrition has never been part of Williams' makeup, but now he's been forced into two humiliating formal apologies, the latest coming Wednesday:
"I'd like to again apologize wholeheartedly to the NFL, Coach Fisher, the entire Rams organization and all football fans for my actions. Furthermore, I apologize to the players of the NFL for my involvement as it is not a true reflection of my values as a father or coach, nor is it reflective of the great respect I have for this game and its core principle of sportsmanship. I accept full responsibility for my actions.

"I highly value the 23 years that I’ve spent in the NFL. I will continue to cooperate fully with the league and its investigation and I will focus my energies on serving as an advocate for both player safety and sportsmanship. I will do everything possible to re-earn the respect of my colleagues, the NFL and its players in hopes of returning to coaching in the future."

Fisher was noncommittal regarding Williams' potential return. Fisher said the Rams would "cross that bridge" at the appropriate time. Fisher also said the Rams never would have hired Williams had they known of the looming bounty investigation and punishment.

The Rams are keeping open their options. The team cannot offer any promises to Williams without knowing when or if the NFL will allow him to coach again. The Rams will also want to see how their defense fares without Williams. They have no plans to hire a replacement in the short term; their defensive staff appears strong without Williams.

One issue is whether Williams can ever again credibly orchestrate the type of attacking defenses he has promoted for years. This will be a tough transition for Williams, one I'm not sure the Rams will want to make with him.

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