Lost in the NFL’s strong reaction to the discovery of a three-year bounty system in New Orleans is the fact that the league initially investigated allegations of a cash-for-cripplings program in 2010, after the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV.
Nothing was found. But how hard did the league really look?
The March 2 confidential report from NFL Security claims that the league’s in-house police force “conducted detailed interviews” of Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Saints assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt, and Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove, and that they each “categorically denied” any knowledge of a bounty program.
So how detailed was the questioning? And how hot was the light that was applied to the witnesses?
If the men were grilled, they’re each great liars — or the members of NFL Security assigned to the case are crappy investigators. If Williams, Vitt, and Hargrove were faced instead with perfunctory “Is there a bounty system?”-type questions, there would have been no way to spot the kind of subtle inconsistencies or “tells” that would pluck at the instincts of the former law-enforcement personnel who end up working for NFL Security.
My own instincts suggest it’s the latter, and that the NFL simply didn’t want to uncover in the weeks after Super Bowl XLIV evidence that would have called into question the validity of the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning season. Supporting this conclusion is the fact that NFL Security interviewed only Williams, Vitt, and Hargrove. Why not interview head coach Sean Payton? Why not interview the rest of the defensive staff? Why not interview extensively every player from the team’s defense, using the various tricks of the trade aimed at manipulating the weak minded in order to get to the truth? Why not review emails and other potentially relevant records?
There was plenty of evidence to suspect that something was amiss. In the bye week before Super Bowl XLIV, Williams brazenly suggested that the Saints didn’t care about taking a 15-yard penalty if it meant knocking Colts quarterback Peyton Manning out of the game.
“When you put too much of that type of worry on a warrior’s mind, he doesn’t play all out,” Williams said. “If it happens, it happens. And the only thing you’d like for me to say is that if it happens you hope he doesn’t get back up and play again.” (Williams’ words prompted Payton to serve the defensive coordinator peanut butter, crackers, and sand in the days preceding Super Bowl XLIV.)
Williams’ comments about Manning should have been enough to prompt a zealous investigator to request from the Saints a copy of a transcript of every 2009 media session from Williams. If such a request had been made, the investigators would have seen this troubling remark from Williams regarding the plan for defending Panthers receiver Steve Smith: “The thing that I think he does is the best is that for a little guy, when the ball goes up in the air, he plays like a 6-10 center; he goes and gets it. What you have to do is to turn his little body over so that when he does get it, he lands on his head and he doesn’t come back in for a while.”
The mere existence of such a nonchalant attitude toward inflicting injury as a means for achieving strategic objectives should have been enough to trigger a scorched-earth investigation in 2010, months before someone blew the whistle and forced the NFL to be far more aggressive.
The two possible explanations for the failure to engage in a more thorough investigation in 2010 are: (1) incompetence; and (2) a deliberate reluctance to publicly identify one of the 32 franchises as being a cheater.
We’ve seen it many times when it comes to tampering. The league looks the other way, either because the league doesn’t want to create the impression that teams are cheating — or because the league office doesn’t want to alienate any of the franchises who ultimately determine who does, and who doesn’t, work at the league office.
In this case, it can be argued that the NFL came down extra hard on the Saints now not because they had a bounty system for three years but because the NFL gave them an opening to get away with one year of it, and the Saints were too stupid and/or arrogant to realize that they should stop.
Regardless, if the Saints had merely stopped doing it after the NFL showed up and gave short shrift to the investigation in 2010, no one would have ever known the difference and the NFL wouldn’t be dealing with a major blow to its image and the league now wouldn’t be forced to determine how deep it wants to dig into the rabbit hole and Congress wouldn’t be poised to do the digging for the league.
So it’s fair to conclude that the league didn’t want to discovery the bounty system in 2010. And that the league hoped that the Saints were smart enough to stop.
After all, the punishment ultimately dispensed could end up hurting the league a lot more than it ever hurts the Saints.