Let’s not be naive. The New Orleans Saints almost undoubtedly are not the only NFL team to have had a so-called “bounty system’’ in operation during the past 50 years.
They are, however, the ones who got caught. They are now experiencing the wrath of a commissioner who feels he must make it perfectly clear that, however inherently violent the sport he governs is, the public must not be allowed to think that the enterprise is, well, completely barbaric.
Don’t mess with Roger Goodell. Ever. He is a mother eagle protecting the image of his NFL nest. That would be the clear message we can draw from the scope of the punishment he has handed out to the Saints for instituting a bounty system that, among other things, targeted opposing quarterbacks Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, and Kurt Warner.
I had been thinking along the lines of a four-game suspension for head coach Sean Payton, something between a half-year and year suspension for (now former) Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and a few games for general manager Mickey Loomis. Plus whatever combination of fines and revocation of draft choices the commissioner thought appropriate.
Thus the news that Goodell has suspended Payton for a full season, Williams for an indefinite period, assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games, and Loomis for eight games leaves me very impressed. A $500,000 fine for the team and the loss of second-round picks in 2012 and 2013 seem quite superfluous when compared with those stunning suspensions.
This is interesting in light of the fact that when he sanctioned the Patriots for Spygate, Goodell had a different view of what constituted proper punishment. A refresher: Bill Belichick was personally fined $500,000 and the Patriots were fined $250,000. In addition, the team was stripped of a first-round pick. There were no suspensions.
By way of explanation, Goodell said at the time that he had not suspended Belichick “largely because I believe that the discipline I am imposing of a max fine and forfeiture of a first-round draft choice, or multiple draft choices, is in fact, far more significant, and therefore long-lasting, and therefore more effective, than a suspension.’’
So is it a simple matter of that was then and this is now? This time the commissioner has decided that a suspension is a far more appropriate punishment for this particular transgression than a personal fine and forfeiture of a draft choice. I know how the NFL folk value their precious draft picks, but life will go on for the Saints without the fresh meat. The Commish is telling us that a year’s suspension is far more significant, and therefore more effective, than a personal fine and forfeiture of a draft pick or two.
What we have learned from both incidents is that image and obedience are what matter most to Roger Goodell. We will never know the scope of strategic advantage Spygate ever gained for the Patriots. People may think they know, but they don’t. What we do know is that the Patriots were the most scrutinized team in history for the final 15 games of the 2007 regular season, and the playoffs, and that they won the 15 regular-season games in question, plus their first two playoff games, and came within 30 seconds or so of winning the whole thing. Spying had nothing to do with any of it.
Whatever Bill Belichick did, or authorized, was overkill. It really was Watergate. Like mortal-lock winner Richard Nixon in 1972, Bill Belichick didn’t need any of it. But Roger Goodell whacked both him and, secondarily, the team, for defying his orders to stop doing whatever he was doing. When Belichick persisted, Goodell reacted.
In the case of the Saints, we will likewise never know just how successful the execution of any bounty plan really was. The little investigation I’m aware of suggests that not much was accomplished.
But Messrs. Payton, Williams, Vitt, and Loomis should not be surprised to learn they are going down very hard, because, according to the commissioner, when confronted, they did not ’fess up like good little boys.
The Commish explained his punishment by saying that the Saints had engaged in “a deliberate effort to conceal the program’s existence from league investigators and a clear determination to maintain the program despite express direction from Saints ownership as well as ongoing inquiries from the league office.’’
Advice to future NFL miscreants: When caught with your hand in the cookie jar, do not claim you thought it was a sink and you were only trying to wash your hands.
Spygate was bad because it violated the spirit of fair play. But Bountygate, in theory, is exponentially worse, because if successfully executed, it could affect someone’s livelihood in a very direct way. So there is no question that the Saints needed to be punished far more severely than the Patriots.
As futile as any effort to make football “safe’’ may be, the commissioner is giving it a try. This is now a league in which concussion awareness is a paramount issue, in which quarterbacks are protected in a way that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago, and in which the phrase “defenseless receivers’’ has meaning for all defensive players.
Given all this, how could Roger Goodell allow the public to think there were teams in the league placing a Wild, Wild West “bounty’’ on members of the opposing team? He had to make a major example of the Saints, or else be branded as contradictory and/or hypocritical.
In a better world, there would be a half-dozen additional teams lined up outside the commissioner’s confessional booth, but I doubt that will be the case.Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.