The disturbing, graphic comments from former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, which were made before the team’s division-round playoff loss to the 49ers, necessarily will become part of the soundtrack of the history of the NFL. But there are more immediate implications that need to be addressed.
For starters, the appeals to be presented to Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday suddenly have become much more difficult for the folks seeking to have penalties reduced.
On Wednesday, as final preparations were being made for the efforts to soften the punishments meted out to coach Sean Payton, G.M. Mickey Loomis, assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt, and the team, there were indications from sources on the fringes of the situation of a sense of quiet confidence regarding a possible gap between the NFL’s conclusions and the evidence to support them.
As of Thursday morning, the glass is far more than half empty.
The bombshell disclosure of Williams’ comments, as chronicled by Mike Silver of Yahoo! Sports and as posted via raw audio on the Internet, will as a practical matter make it extremely unlikely that any of the sanctions will be reduced. In fact, it wouldn’t be completely shocking if Commissioner Roger Goodell decides to suspend the appeal hearing so that he can decide whether this new evidence should result in further investigation aimed at enhancing the penalties.
The fact that Williams was specifically instructing players on the targeting of heads and knees prior to the most recent game played by the Saints becomes even more troubling in light of the fact that the Saints knew at that time that the NFL once again was investigating the situation.
“Saints owner Tom Benson notified Mr. Loomis in January 2012 prior to the team’s participation in the playoffs that the league’s investigation had been reopened,” the league’s March 21 announcement of discipline states. “Mr. Benson reiterated his position that a bounty program was unacceptable and instructed Mr. Loomis to ensure that if a bounty program existed at the Saints it would stop immediately. By his own admission, Mr. Loomis responded to this direction by making only cursory inquiries of Coaches Payton and Williams. He never issued instructions to end the bounty program to either the coaching staff or the players.”
And so Loomis, Payton, and Williams knew that the league was looking for evidence of bounties by the time the Saints were playing the 49ers in the NFC semifinals.
“In January 2012, prior to the Saints’ first playoff game of the 2011 season, Coach Payton was advised by Mr. Loomis that the league office had reopened the investigation,” the league said. “Coach Payton made a cursory inquiry but took no action to ensure that any bounty program was discontinued.”
It speaks to a higher level of arrogance and/or recklessness than previously realized. Before the release of the audio, it wasn’t clear whether the deliberate effort to inflict and induce injury continued into the 2011 playoffs. It now is.
Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention the curious connection between the release of the audio and the commencement of the appeal hearings. With questions recently being raised about the league’s extreme power in situations like this, with Goodell making the decision and then having ultimate authority over the appeal, the subject has now been changed to the Longest Yard-style candor that Williams displayed at a time when Williams and the rest of the organization knew the league was paying attention, and at a time when a filmmaker was in the room recording the things that Williams was saying.
Did the league know about the audio or have any role in engineering the timing of its release? It’s a fair question, but it will never be asked, not with the Williams audio drawing so much attention and scrutiny.