The NFL’s overall level of concern regarding the bounty system maintained by the Saints became obvious when the league tried to drop the press release announcing the findings into the shallow end of the news cycle by releasing it on late Friday afternoon.
In addition to the official statement from the NFL, the league’s security department generated a “confidential” report on March 2, which ended up being not so confidential, after all. Within 30 minutes after the league disclosed the Saints’ bounty system, reporters were pointing to specific details from the four-page report written by NFL Security.
But while the fact that linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to any teammate who knocked Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC title game represents one of the most jarring disclosures in the confidential report, it contains other specific conclusions that merit closer consideration and scrutiny, not on a piecemeal basis but all in one place.
So here’s a list of things that tend to jump off the page when reading the report that the league didn’t make public last Friday.
1. The first allegation came in early 2010. The Vikings claimed (as it turned out, accurately) that a defensive player who knocked Favre out of the game would receive $10,000.
2. When interviewed by NFL Security, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, linebackers coach Joe Vitt, and defensive end Anthony Hargrove each “categorically denied that any such activity had occurred.” Hargrove was interviewed because he was “believed to have knowledge of the activity.” Apparently, no other interviews were conducted, which means that the “categorical denials” (i.e., bald-faced lies) either were convincing — or the NFL opted not to engage in a scorched-earth investigation for fear of what may have been discovered.
3. A specific Vikings player had made the allegation of a bounty on Brett Favre. But that player then declined to provide any evidence to support the charge, and he actually retracted the allegation when interviewed. (Maybe snitches really do get stitches.)
4. When NFL Security went to interview Saints employees, coach Sean Payton instructed his staff to “get your ducks in a row.” The report doesn’t elaborate on the meaning of Payton’s remark; he quite possibly was telling the assistant coaches to get their stories (or, as the case may be, their categorical denials) straight.
5. In the latter part of the 2011 season, “new and credible information became available.” The report doesn’t specify the source or type of the evidence, but it’s widely believed that someone, for whatever reason, blew the whistle.
6. As reported elsewhere, the notorious Mike Ornstein pledged $10,000 to the bounty fund during the 2009 season. In 2011, he also pledged substantial amounts “toward a bounty on an opposing quarterback.” At one point, Ornstein sent an email to Payton committing $5,000 toward a bounty. The fact that outside money came into the fund could be the primary magnet for the attention of state or federal authorities — especially since Ornstein is a twice-convicted felon.
7. Though the report doesn’t expressly say it, the Saints apparently used the bounty system during the 2011 playoffs, when they faced the Lions and the 49ers.
8. The report concludes that various persons engaged in “conduct detrimental” to the interests of the league: the players who contributed money to the fund; the players who targeted players from opposing teams; the coaches who administered the program; head coach Sean Payton and G.M. Mickey Loomis for “failing to supervise the actions of their players and assistant coaches, failing to respond to the instructions of the club’s owner, and failing to ensure that club personnel fully cooperated during league inquiries into these matters.” The use of that label — “conduct detrimental” — likely means that there will be significant punishment.
9. The report at no point states that any person engaged in conduct detrimental to the interests of the league by flat-out lying to NFL Security. In many respects, those violations are as serious as the underlying infractions.
It’s important to remember that the report doesn’t reflect mere allegations or speculation. The report contains the findings of NFL Security. This doesn’t mean that the things contained in the report definitely happened beyond a shadow of a doubt, but it means that the NFL’s in-house investigators have concluded that the statements are true.
The next step will be for the league to announce the consequences. Don’t be surprised if they are severe.