NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued part of his discipline in the Saints bounty scandal Wednesday, and it hit like a bomb across the league.
Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, formerly of the Saints, was suspended indefinitely - at least for the 2012 season.
Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season without pay - about $7 million - effective April 1.
New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended without pay for the first eight games.
Assistant head coach Joe Vitt will sit out the first six games without pay.
And the Saints organization was fined $500,000 and docked its second-round picks in the 2012 and 2013 drafts.
The message from Goodell was unmistakable: targeting opposing players for injury was not acceptable, and you’d better not lie about it when confronted.
The Saints did both, and will pay an unprecedented price.
“A combination of elements made this matter particularly unusual and egregious,’’ Goodell said in a statement. “When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards over a three-year period, the involvement of the coaching staff, and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent that such conduct is totally unacceptable and has no place in the game.’’
Goodell hasn’t settled on discipline for the two dozen players involved.
The NFL said it had verifiable proof that the Saints violated the league’s longstanding “bounty’’ rule that prohibits anyone from participating in pay-for-performance/bounty programs, especially one that targets opponents for injury.
The league found that payments were made for plays in which opposing players were injured. Among those targeted: current quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, and retired quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.
The NFL said players received compensation for “knockout’’ hits and “cart-offs,’’ when a player had to be taken off by a medical cart. In the playoffs, those amounts drastically increased.
“To our fans, the NFL and the rest of our league, we offer our sincere apology and take full responsibility for these serious violations,’’ the Saints said in a statement. “It has always been the goal of the New Orleans Saints to create a model franchise and to impact our league in a positive manner. There is no place for bounties in our league and we reiterate our pledge that this will never happen again.’’
No NFL head coach has ever incurred a suspension, let alone the year-long suspension that Payton received.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 for his role in the 2007 “Spygate’’ case. The organization was fined $250,000 and docked a first-round pick.
Payton initially claimed that he was unaware of the bounty program, which was instituted and run by Williams, but the NFL said others contradicted Payton’s statements. When presented with an e-mail sent to him by an associate, Payton identified the reference as pertaining to a bounty. Payton also directed Williams and Vitt to get their “ducks in a row’’ before talking to league investigators.
“It was clear that this was widely known and if you weren’t aware of it as head coach, you should have been aware of it. That’s a critical factor for me,’’ Goodell told NFL Network. “This is something as a head coach you need to be held accountable for and responsible for.’’
Vitt was expected to be the interim coach if Payton was suspended, but now they’ll have to change plans.
Two Massachusetts natives figure to take prominent roles as the Saints deal with the suspensions.
Steve Spagnuolo, a Grafton native, was hired after the 2011 season to run the Saints defense. He was the Rams head coach the previous three seasons so he has experience directing a team.
Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., a Medway native, could ascend to interim head coach, and he will at least run the high-powered offense featuring quarterback Drew Brees.
Carmichael called plays when Payton broke his leg last year, and even after Payton returned, Carmichael kept the duties. Carmichael and Brees have a relationship back to 2002, when Carmichael was an offensive assistant with the Chargers.
Brees was shaken by the news of Payton’s suspension.
“I am speechless,’’ Brees said. “Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this punishment.’’
Tom Condon, Brees’s agent, said at Boston College’s pro day Wednesday that Brees will keep the Saints on the right path.
“I haven’t spoken to him since these sanctions have come down, and they seem extraordinarily severe,’’ said Condon, who played in the NFL and served as union president. “At the same time, Drew’s a great leader, he tries to make the best of any situation, and I know that he’s very close with Sean Payton, both professionally and personally.’’
Condon said he hadn’t spoken to Brees about Carmichael’s possible ascension.
“I know that he has a really strong relationship with that coaching staff and I’ve known Pete Carmichael for a long time,’’ Condon said. “His father coached here [at BC] when I was playing and he’s got a terrific reputation around the league as a very bright young coach and he’s steeped in the offense, so I think he’ll be fine.’’
The NFL said Williams described his role as keeping records, setting payout amounts, deciding who received the payouts, and distributing cash envelopes to those who “won’’ the money.
“I accept full responsibility for my actions,’’ Williams said in a statement. “I will continue to cooperate fully with the league and its investigation and I will focus my energies on serving as an advocate for both player safety and sportsmanship. I will do everything possible to re-earn the respect of my colleagues, the NFL and its players in hopes of returning to coaching in the future.’’
That the Saints attempted to cover up the allegations and lie to investigators likely made the sanctions worse.
“Clearly we were lied to,’’ Goodell said. “We investigated this back in 2010. We were told that it was not happening.
“It continued for another two years until we got credible evidence late in the 2011 season. We were able, obviously, to identify significant information that verifies from multiple sources that this was going on for a three-year period.
“I don’t think we can be too hard on people who put at risk our players’ health and safety. That is a critical issue for us going forward, and it has been in our past.
“We will always make the decisions that are best for the game long term and for our players.’’Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.