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.