|ESPN.com: NFL Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
|It's perfectly clear how Saints fans feel about Roger Goodell's handling of the bounty scandal.|
There are two ways this can play out for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during Super Bowl week in New Orleans.
One scenario has the locals putting all the drama of bounties, suspensions and endless legal wrangling so far behind them that they embrace what should be a memorable time. The other scenario has those same residents savoring every last opportunity to rip into Goodell.
It says here that option No. 2 is what we're going to witness in the Crescent City.
NFL fans are not quick to forgive or forget, and you can bet Saints loyalists are still wondering what could have become of their 2012 season. They lost coach Sean Payton to a one-year suspension after Goodell unveiled the results of the league's investigation into the team's bounty scandal in March. They spent months wondering whether the commissioner could successfully punish the players implicated in the probe, which he ultimately couldn't do.
In the process, the Saints went from being a championship contender to a seven-win team. The year was tainted in New Orleans before a single game ever kicked off.
Though Saints fans would be wise to look at their team's power structure when assigning blame for all this controversy -- most notably Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and still banished former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- they certainly will not do that.
They will lay all their recent struggles at Goodell's doorstep and wait eagerly for their chance to make him feel their pain. It's the only domino that has yet to fall in this sordid, long-running story. Saints fans have been waiting for their closure.
|The most unpopular man in New Orleans? During Super Bowl week, look no further than Roger Goodell.|
This, by the way, is what happens once a franchise tastes some serious success. Goodell didn't merely punish the team that spent decades disappointing its fans. He lashed into an organization that has become the symbol of everything that is right in New Orleans. He picked a fight with a team that revitalized a region devastated by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.
Payton's banishment had to be the hardest part for fans to stomach. Williams had since moved on, so his transgressions hardly registered in the hearts of the locals. The loss of Loomis probably didn't merit much concern either. Everybody knows Payton is the guy who holds the bulk of the power in a franchise that has won at least 10 games in four of his six seasons on the sideline.
Payton's absence meant something else too. A team that won the Super Bowl during the 2009 season suddenly became fragile. The defense bottomed out under recently fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, surrendering an NFL-record 7,042 yards. If there were any doubt about Payton's value to the franchise, it was answered by how definitively the Saints vanished from relevance. They were mediocre at best without him, which probably explains why his new contract -- worth a reported $8 million annually -- made him the league's highest-paid head coach.
Goodell didn't just take away a coach when he sat Payton for almost a year. He sent the city's top ambassador off into the wilderness, with little concern for how far the Saints would plummet in the process. Goodell was sending a message about both the bounties and Payton's arrogance in trying to cover them up. Saints fans surely saw it differently -- that the commissioner was unfairly picking on their team in a league where bounties have been around for decades.
Payton, meantime, is taking the high road. He recently asked Saints fans to treat Goodell with civility during his stay in New Orleans. "I think that all eyes are on you and now the impression is very important," Payton told NBC Sports Network. "I think we, as a city, embrace everyone, and part of closure for us is moving past it. ... I think it's important when all eyes are on you to put your best foot forward and I think we will."
The sad part about all this is that local fans may have a harder time seeing the good things that Goodell has done for the city. He played a huge role in the discussions that ultimately kept the Saints in New Orleans after Katrina's devastation. It's no secret that team owner Tom Benson was seriously pondering moving his team to San Antonio. That move was closer to happening than many people realize.
Goodell also has shown a human side in handling Payton during this suspension. He let the coach be present when quarterback Drew Brees set a league record for touchdown passes in consecutive games. He lifted Payton's suspension last week, allowing the coach to return to his team a month earlier than anticipated. That decision enabled Payton to attend the Senior Bowl, return to daily dealings with his staff and move forward with his life.
That isn't to say Goodell is above reproach. He clearly didn't have enough evidence to so aggressively punish players like Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and former Saints Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove. Goodell dug in too deep, so much so that former commissioner Paul Tagliabue's eventual ruling -- that the bounties did exist but the players couldn't be found culpable -- felt like a means for the league to save face.
To be clear, there's no doubting that the Saints were doing some dirty stuff under Payton's watch. Goodell just couldn't find enough proof to make his allegations stick to everyone he wanted to bust.
What Saints fans must understand is that this wasn't a personal attack. Goodell was sticking to the same desire to improve player safety that has been driving his tenure for most of the past three years. Payton and his fellow Saints just happened to be brazen enough to test the commissioner at the worst possible time. Had this been 2006, we might be talking about an entirely different story.
Because it is 2013, the best move the Saints fans can make is to let this week be about the game instead of a shot at retribution. It's the best possible town for a Super Bowl to be held, and this contest is filled with great storylines.
The last thing New Orleans needs is a moment that detracts from that. After all, there's already been enough to regret when it comes to the Saints this season.