From the moment the NFL pulled the sheet off the Saints bounty case, the NFL accused Saints coach Sean Payton of telling his staff to “get your ducks in a row” when the league first investigated the situation in early 2010.
Here’s how we explained it on March 7, quoting from the NFL’s initial report: “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.”
But the NFL elaborated on”get your ducks in a row” two weeks later, explaining in the statement announcing Payton’s suspension that he “encourage[d] the false denials by instructing assistants to ‘make sure our ducks are in a row.’”
On Friday’s PFT Live, I asked Payton whether he said “get your ducks in a row,” and if so what he meant by that.
“It was really a comment that I had made in preparation for what I knew was going to be an investigation,” Payton said. “I had been contacted, our front office had been, . . . and I wanted to make sure, more importantly than anything else that anyone that was going to be investigated or questioned had their facts straight and the specifics of it.”
Asked specifically whether he was suggesting that the coaches should lie, Payton said, “I think more than anything else it just meant be prepared and, listen, I’ve read and seen a lot of the reports about what that was insinuating and I think, you know, we’re stretching it or really looking for something there. It really wasn’t what I was insinuating at all.”
To be clear, the NFL never insinuated that. The NFL flat-out said it, assuming that Payton meant he wanted his assistants to lie based on the perception that they did lie. But given that Commissioner Paul Tagliabue found that defensive end Anthony Hargrove — who was suspended eight games by Roger Goodell for allegedly lying at the behest of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Saints linebackers coach Joe Vitt — may not have been lying based on the specific questions he was asked, then the presumption that getting “our ducks in a row” was an instruction to tell lies may have been erroneous.
As we wrote after Tagliabue scuttled the player suspensions in December, “In fairness to Payton, ‘making sure our ducks are in a row‘ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘making sure our lies are in a row.’ Lawyers routinely prepare witnesses before hearings and trials not with the goal of suborning perjury but of ensuring that an inadvertent misstatement of fact doesn’t provide the opposition with an unintended ‘gotcha’ moment.”
Though Payton is now back and the process has concluded, the fact remains that the NFL’s presumed smoking gun in the case supporting Payton’s full-season suspension may not have been.