The Saints, the NFL, and coach Sean Payton have come a long way since the bounty scandal of 2012. But the scars remain for the man who was suspended for a full year due to the misconduct of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and who believes that the league office wanted to see not a suspension but a coaching change.
“When you say a year and you’re not able to talk to any coach, you’re not able to talk to any other player, and you know that the league office actually contacted two other owners to talk to Mr. Benson about finding a way to have you fired, like they are trying to break you,” Payton told Graham Bensinger in an interview that was published in early October but that had largely gone unnoticed.
“I just know that the late Mr. Benson, to his credit, came to me and said, ‘I’ve just gotten two calls from two other league owners, and I know that came from the league office,” Payton said.
It’s clear that Payton continues to have hard feelings about the fiasco, and for good reason. The NFL, as former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue concluded in the ruling that overturned the suspensions imposed on Saints players, opted to deal with a widespread cultural problem by catching one team red handed and ignoring the others that were and had been doing the same thing, often with Gregg Williams on the payroll.
“One of the things that we’ve seen, and it’s just the truth,” Payton said. “Our league’s no different than a large political party. They’re experts at pushing their message through the media. Look, it was in full force. ‘It’ meaning the league, the machine, in pushing their message out early.”
Payton found himself in the middle of a mess, given the league’s motivation to make an example out of him and the Saints.
“It was brutal,” Payton said. “I can’t even begin to tell you. The more and more people looked at it, and the more and more people looked at where the information came from. The disgruntled Saints employee [Mike Cerullo] who happened to miss two weeks of work and never reported to any one of us where he was that we knew we were firing after the season, the disgruntled employee who happens to work for the league know, who just got hired last year and we get wind from former league employees this was a done deal and the Saints, we knew better, too.”
Payton, whose abilities and work ethic have landed him a spot on the Competition Committee, remains willing to speak his mind about the manner in which the league handled the situation, all the way up to the top of the league.
“Look, it’s one of the weaknesses of our Commissioner,” he said. There’s too much emotion. When the penalties came down, it was just, it was foolish.”
The whole thing was foolish, even if the goal was to display sensitivity to player health and safety at a time when concussion lawsuits were being filed by the day. The league was determined to make an example out of Payton, and it’s now clear that Payton believes the league wanted him to be gone from the Saints for more than just a year.