When Ian Rapoport, formerly of the Boston Herald but now of NFL Network, forwarded the link to his conversation with Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley regarding the bounty controversy, the natural inclination was to scoff at Woodley’s comparison of bounties to contract incentives.
But then I considered what he was saying. And it started to make some sense.
“If you think about it, when you say there’s an extra incentive, the ‘bounty,’ that’s like people having incentives in their contract,” Woodley told Rapoport. “You get a certain amount of sacks, you get an extra bonus. Is that considered a bounty?
“You’re still going to go out there to make the plays in order to get some extra money. Is that putting that much more pressure to go out there and want to hit a quarterback because you know you have a $100,000 bonus coming if you do this?”
In other words, football players play football. Different tactics are utilized to get players to play football harder, better. Whether that extra kick comes from a contract incentive or a cash payment for playing so hard that it puts an opponent out of the game, it’s more about motivation and focus than it is about inflicting injury, especially in the absence of a specific pattern of cheap shots or other clearly beyond-the-bounds behavior that could serve no purpose other than to create bodily harm.
“When I’m going to hit the quarterback, I’m not thinking, ‘I should hit this guy soft,’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m about to take this dude down to the ground,'” Woodley said. “With a running back going through the hole, he’s trying to lay a hit on you, I think everybody is out there trying to lay a hit on somebody.”
Contract incentives, bounties — whatever the device — get players in the frame of mind to go out with the single-minded purpose of delivering hard hits and fighting through pain and fatigue. These weren’t Nancy Kerrigan-style kneecappings. These were, in many respects, good performances procured by bad intentions.
That’s not to say the process flies off the rails when members of a team’s coaching staff put together a formula for “knock-outs” and “cart-offs” and packs bills into envelopes and hands them out like gold stars, and then lies about it when the league investigates. But there’s a certain amount of appeal to the notion that a disconnect exists between the unsavory methods of getting players to play with reckless abandon and the reality that, in the end, guys were simply playing football, often with reckless abandon.
None of this means the NFL should look the other way. The Saints screwed up, at the worst time in the history of the sport. But absent evidence that Saints players were using brass knuckles or dipping tape in plaster of Paris or hiding outside locker-room doors to cold-cock unsuspecting quarterbacks, it’s more than a little difficult to paint the outcome of the bounties as anything other than the kind of aggressive, nasty football that we see from any team whose players are properly motivated and focused to play hard and fast and mean.