Sunday night’s Saints-Cardinals game provided in the third series from the New Orleans defense a clear example of the kind of play for which players allegedly were being paid in violation of league rules.
When defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis dragged down Arizona quarterback Kevin Kolb, causing him to leave the game with what turned out to be a bruised chest muscle, Ellis accomplished a $1,500 “knockout” in the now-defunct vernacular of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. (If Kolb had returned, it would have simply been a $1,000 “cart-off.”)
It’s a great opportunity for the league to use its various media platforms to send a clear message to all media and fans that this is precisely the kind of play for which the Saints were punished: A clean, legal hit that resulted in an opponent leaving the game.
The fact that the league didn’t pounce on the opportunity to let us all know that this is exactly what the league punished the Saints for makes us even more curious as to whether the league hopes to avoid the debate that would arise from punishing teams and players for giving other players a little extra cash for simply doing their jobs.
Ellis is paid to chase down quarterbacks and to apply clean, legal hits to them. Ellis has a clear incentive to knock the starting quarterback out of the game. (Although in this specific case the Saints may have been better off facing Kolb instead of John Skelton.) Throwing a little extra money to Ellis — the NFL equivalent of the helmet sticker — doesn’t create any less incentive to hit the quarterback and hope he can’t continue.
The league defines such incentives as bounties, even if the incentive to apply clean, legal hits in a way that induces injury nevertheless exists.
Indeed, when former Browns defensive tackle Gerard Warren said of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2004, “One rule they used to tell me: Kill the head and the body’s dead,” the league didn’t respond by suspending Warren for making this threat, or for vowing to punish him if Roethlisberger were injured via the application of a clean, legal hit. Instead, the league had this to say: “We notified the team, including Gerard Warren, that if a player commits a flagrant foul after making such a statement, it may be a decisive factor supporting the suspension of the player, depending on the entire set of circumstances.”
So if cash wasn’t being paid to Saints players for flagrant fouls, why is this a problem?
The point is that the term “bounty” creates the false impression that defensive players were breaking fingers under the pile or kneecapping opponents outside the locker room. Paying a guy like Ellis for doing his job during the third defensive series is, philosophically, no different than paying Malcolm Jenkins for the interception he notched during the first defensive series of the game.
While we understand that the ability to earn some extra cash could prompt a guy to break the rules in the hopes of cashing in, the micro incentive to pocket a little extra walking-around money must be regarded simultaneously with the macro incentive of winning the war of attrition by hitting guys so hard — cleanly — that they can’t keep playing.