Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Another test for Saints' owner
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
At some point in the near future, we'll learn plenty about New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. He's had his head coach suspended for a season, a former defensive coordinator banned indefinitely, and now his general manager, Mickey Loomis, is embroiled in the kind of controversy that no professional executive wants to face.
The question today isn't merely whether Loomis is guilty of illegally eavesdropping on visiting coaches as recently as eight years ago, an allegation the Saints have denied. It's whether Benson really has the good sense to fire him if those charges prove true.
As soon as this story broke -- the U.S. Attorney's office in the Eastern District of Louisiana says it was told that Loomis had an electronic device in his Superdome suite that let him listen to opposing coaches -- it had to feel like a stiff uppercut to Benson's midsection. The Saints already looked sketchy for the suspensions the NFL handed to Loomis, head coach Sean Payton, assistant Joe Vitt and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams for their roles in a bounty program that targeted opposing players for injuries. Now Benson must stew as government agents determine whether Loomis broke federal laws. At the very least, the investigation has humiliated the owner again.
Loomis earned his first suspension for actions that were insubordinate. When the owner discovered that the league was aware of the team's bounty program, he told Loomis to shut it down. Instead, Loomis let the practice continue until it publicly embarrassed the franchise and destroyed its chances for a successful season this fall.
Those actions alone should tell us two things about Loomis: (1) He's clearly out of control and; (2) he's capable of doing just about anything within that franchise.
Saints owner Tom Benson is facing the type of controversy no executive wants.
Loomis might have a tough time proving his innocence in this case, especially in the court of public opinion. If he was reckless enough to blow off Benson's commands on the bounty program, it's not unreasonable to suspect him of illegally eavesdropping on opponents, although so far no one has determined that he actually did listen in on such conversations.
He isn't the first NFL employee to be accused of spying on the opposition -- New England's Bill Belichick earned that honor in 2007. Let's also not forget the timing of these alleged incidents, which supposedly occurred between 2002 and 2004, Loomis' first three seasons in his current job.
Although Loomis is responsible for the Saints' entire football operation -- and was named the league's executive of the year in 2006 -- his status resulted in part from his being in the right spot when Benson fired former general manager Randy Mueller 10 years ago and Payton's hiring six years ago. Loomis is a former small-college basketball player with a degree in accounting, a man who rose to prominence during 15 years with the Seattle Seahawks because of his financial acumen. When Benson named Loomis general manager in 2002, the move so irritated former Saints offensive tackle Kyle Turley that he told Sports Illustrated, "The guy spent  years in a back room, and now all of a sudden he's a GM? He has no clue about a 40-yard dash, a pass set, a tackle or a throw."
Could Loomis have been insecure enough after replacing Mueller that he sought any advantage to improve his odds at success? Mueller had been the personnel expert when both men came to New Orleans in 2000, and Mueller lasted just two seasons under Benson.
Sources told "Outside the Lines" that the listening device was first installed for Mueller. At that time, the device could track communications only among Saints coaches, not opposing staff.
Those same sources say things quickly changed once Loomis became general manager in 2002. That same equipment was rewired to listen to opposing coaches, and communications between Saints coaches could no longer be heard, they say. The comical part of all this is that New Orleans gained no definitive competitive advantage during the time this device allegedly was usable. The Saints went 12-12 at home during those three seasons.
These allegations should be making Benson queasy by now. It's hard enough to imagine any NFL owner's accepting what happened in the bounty scandal, especially because Benson looked both disconnected from his team and easily dismissed by his subordinates. But two highly public controversies surrounding your executive vice president in less than two months? If Benson were a teenager living in a rough neighborhood, people would be questioning his manhood if he didn't come down hard on somebody.
That's one of the current problems with today's NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell is always playing the heavy when things go wrong. If somebody steps out of line -- whether it's a player, coach, executive or owner -- Goodell is the one who doles out the ultimate punishment. That routine makes things nice, neat and easy for the owners because they don't have to answer many tough questions about the dysfunction in their organizations or how they choose to handle it.
If the allegations about Loomis prove true, that routine must change. Goodell certainly would bring his hammer down, but Benson would need to make his own statement as well. It's not as though the Saints couldn't survive if Loomis weren't running the franchise. At that point, it would be best if Benson started thinking about new candidates for the most powerful position in his organization.