Commentary

Don't call it cheating

'Bounty' programs are inexcusable, but Saints did not gain competitive advantage

Originally Published: March 5, 2012
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

It's detestable, but I don't consider it cheating. If it is in fact cheating, then every team I played for during my seven-year career cheated in one way, shape or form.

I'm talking, of course, about the New Orleans Saints' pay-for-performance program that the NFL said on Friday was in violation of the bounty rule.

Let's be clear about something right off the bat. Paying players as incentive to injure or knock an opposing player out of the game is reprehensible. There is no place in the NFL for an intent to injure. None. Anybody involved should be punished severely.

The idea is to physically wear down your opponents. Punish them. Hit them as hard as you can on every play. If they get injured, so be it, but that is not a specific goal.

I played for five teams and never heard of any offers of financial compensation for injuring an opponent. Ever. That includes the 2003 Buffalo Bills team that was coached by, you guessed it, Gregg Williams, the current St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator and the alleged mastermind of the bounty program in New Orleans from 2009 to 2011. I also never heard of such a thing while a member of the Washington Redskins in 2007, when Williams was employed as the defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeFormer defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and the Saints have reportedly drawn the ire of the league office in recent years..
Chuck Cook/US PresswireIf Gregg Williams was leading bounty programs in Buffalo and Washington, he kept it quiet.

That doesn't mean I'm disputing the accounts by multiple players who have suggested in recent days that the bounty program was in place under Williams at those stops as well. It sounds like it clearly was. I'm just saying I knew nothing about it, which leads me to believe that if it were happening, it was kept pretty quiet and was just among the defensive players.

That brings me to my next point -- the idea that this was cheating and gave the Saints some sort of competitive advantage. I don't agree.

It is not like the officials aren't out there on the field. If a hit is late, egregious or unnecessary, it will get called accordingly. Every player can do that at any time whether there's 1,000 bucks in it for him or not. And is the chance for an extra 1,000 bucks worth the fines that are sure to come along with it if the hit is a dirty hit? Not by a long shot.

Is it against the rules? Absolutely. Does that mean it is cheating? I suppose strictly speaking it does, but I personally don't see the competitive advantage that is gained.

In fact, there aren't supposed to be any pay-for-performance plans that aren't designated as incentives in a player's contract. Technically I guess that means every team I played for cheated.

Maybe it's an assistant coach announcing in a team meeting that he would give the player of the game $1,000 cash. Or a quarterback giving each starting offensive lineman $500 after every game in which he wasn't sacked. Pretty much every team has had players offer up cash or a pot of cash for tackles inside the 20-yard line on the kickoff team. That's standard operating procedure.

What about the end-of-the-year bonuses/gifts that star quarterbacks and running backs traditionally give to the offensive line? You know, Dan Marino and the whole Isotoner gloves thing?

If that is in fact cheating because it is illegal or in some form a way to circumvent the salary cap, where do you draw the line?

I guess every team that gives out game balls after a win is cheating because the balls cost money even before they are sent out to be painted up with the player's name and score of the game, making them even more valuable. Isn't that pay for performance?

How about the orange slices they give out at halftime? Does the salary-cap guy have to determine the value of each orange slice?

That is obviously ridiculous, but the question remains: Where do you draw the line? That's easy -- when the money is being doled out for injuries instead of big plays. When the money comes from coaches or the organization instead of among the players themselves.

Seems simple enough to me, but somehow I think the NFL will go deeper. The league will outlaw any such payments, as if that is the type of thing it can police anyway. And then we will all get down to the minutiae of what is and isn't illegal.

Then we'll start talking about game balls.

From the inbox

Q: You have become my favorite football guy. Please talk about what it is like before a big game in the locker room. I really want to hear about how guys psych themselves up before a game. It has to be a real experience. Do you have conflicts over music or other distractions?

Craig in Tacoma, Wash.

A: My guess is you'd be utterly amazed how quiet an NFL locker room is before a game. Some guys are studying their playbooks. Others are just listening to music with headphones on so as to not disturb anybody else. Some players might quietly talk among themselves about the game or, possibly, what they are planning to do after the game. It is a very quiet but often tense atmosphere until a certain designated coach announces that there are two minutes to go before it is time to take the field. Then, everything changes. It is like a switch is flipped. I truly wish every one of you could experience that just one time in your life. I am getting chills right now just typing it. It is a truly unique experience that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else in life.

Q: ESPN The Magazine ran an article in the interview issue fairly recently about how much athletes think fans know about their specific sports. It interviewed two NFL players who gave drastically different responses. As a former NFL player, how much do you think fans really know about football? About team dynamics? About strategy?

Jed from New York

A: That's a very difficult question to answer because as you might imagine, there is a very wide range of knowledge among NFL fans. I'm often very impressed by how well the callers to my SiriusXM radio show know their team, personnel and cap situation and would consider them extremely knowledgeable. At the same time, most fans know little or nothing about scheme, play calling, technique, etc. If they heard an offensive or defensive play call, it would be like a foreign language to them. That goes for the media as well. In general, they know very little about actual hard-core football and would be clueless if they sat in on any sort of team or positional meeting.

Q: What is the thinking of an offensive lineman when he sees his quarterback being hit with a say, helmet-to-helmet hit? Also, what if the attacker has done it many times before? Why don't the teammates of the quarterback do illegal hits on the attacker? So they get a 15-yard penalty and a fine but it may slow down future attacks. Shouldn't the players do the policing of such hits?

Jerry in Honolulu

A: I understand where you are coming from, Jerry, but that is not the solution. Does it bother an offensive lineman when his quarterback takes a shot, especially an illegal one? You'd better believe it does. If it doesn't, there's a real problem. The real solution is to, No. 1, block the player more effectively so that he doesn't have that opportunity to hit your quarterback again. No. 2, physically punish that player within the rules of the game as aggressively as you can. That's what's great about football. You are allowed to hit your opponent. Repeatedly. Legally. That's how you respond, not with a cheap shot that would draw a flag and hurt your team.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in a seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.