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Sunday Football Notes

NFL painted itself into a box with bounties

Expect the players to continue to say nothing, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to have no choice but to uphold the suspensions, and the players to sue in federal court.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Expect the players to continue to say nothing, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to have no choice but to uphold the suspensions, and the players to sue in federal court.

The Saints bounty scandal is likely to rage on for months.

But this past week was one of the biggest in regards to the explosive story.

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Between the NFL’s exhibits of evidence published by the Players Association, and the presentation (the same given to the four suspended players and their lawyers) before 12 members of the media, of which we have read the transcript, some of the details of the NFL’s case have come into focus.

Some of that evidence has been called into question by the players and coaches the NFL says it came from.

This has only emboldened the conspiracy theorists - the accused, the NFLPA, and Saints fans - who feel the Saints have been railroaded in a sloppy investigation.

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For a moment, let’s just put aside what exactly the motive would be for the NFL to take down one of its top teams and tarnish the great story of the New Orleans Super Bowl title (can’t think of one).

Let’s instead take a look at some of what the NFL has presented.

In short, Saints management - general manager Mickey Loomis (eight-game suspension), coach Sean Payton (2012 season), former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinite), and interim head coach Joe Vitt (six games) - got what it deserved.

The suspensions levied against four players - Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (three games), Packers tackle Anthony Hargrove (eight), Saints end Will Smith (four), and linebacker Jonathan Vilma (2012 season) - are a bit more problematic.

As for Saints management, there are two statements of absolute fact:

1. In 2010, the NFL investigated the bounty claims (which started after then-Vikings coach Brad Childress was told by one of his players that a Saints player said bounties had been placed on Brett Favre and Kurt Warner). We know this from, among other things, the signed declaration by Hargrove.

2. The bounty system - regardless of whether it was payment for injuries or for performance (both are illegal) - remained in effect until the end of the 2011 season. The audio of Williams’s speech before the 49ers game captured by filmmaker Sean Pamphilon makes that clear, aside from the other evidence the NFL has.

For this, Saints management is tried and convicted. They all lied to investigators that anything was going on. And not only didn’t they stop what they were doing after having a shot go across the bow, they kept at it for two more seasons.

For violating the rules, being stupid and beyond arrogant, they all received just punishments. I don’t need ironclad proof of what Loomis, Payton, and Vitt knew or didn’t know; it’s their football program, they are responsible. Period.

As to the players, the evidence the NFL presented against Vilma is overwhelming. “At least three sources’’ stated that he pledged $10,000 cash for knocking out Favre, and “two sources’’ said he pledged $10,000 for Warner.

I do have a bit of a problem with the “at least three sources’’ statement. Exactly how many is it? Why the gray area?

Offering that in a team meeting, as Vilma did, is unforgivable.

The evidence the NFL said it has against Smith and Fujita seems sound. Neither is accused of lying to investigators, so that’s why their suspensions are less.

The case against Hargrove, however, is flawed.

First, his signed declaration does not admit to the existence of the program or that he was told to lie, as the NFL said it does. That’s just wrong.

And the video from the Vikings playoff game does not conclusively prove that it was Hargrove saying, “Bobby, pay me my money,’’ after hearing that Favre was knocked out of the game (ultimately, he didn’t miss a play).

Hargrove definitely lied to investigators the first time around. That is a serious matter and does merit a suspension.

The NFL said it does have other evidence against Hargrove.

That leads us into the overriding point about this investigation.

Saints fans should not automatically take the word of the players or their lawyers in regards to the case. They are all in full defense mode. They will deny everything and accuse the NFL of everything because they know, at the end of the day, the NFL will not show its entire case because it wants to shield some of the sources from retribution (which is understandable). The players can go to their deathbeds denying their involvement because the NFL won’t be able to divulge ironclad proof to the public.

But did it have to get to this point?

What the NFL should have done, after its investigation revealed evidence that would be scandalous, was to go to NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and ask for cooperation for the benefit of the accused and also all players.

The NFL should have asked the NFLPA to hire a joint independent counsel to go through the evidence and interviews and do whatever else was warranted to establish a statement of facts in the case.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could then use those as his basis for punishment, along with any interviews he did.

That way, no one could accuse the NFL of playing fast and loose with the facts (for reasons we still can’t fathom).

Of course, the NFLPA probably would have balked. God forbid it ever does anything real with the NFL for the betterment of the game. It won’t agree to hip pads, for crying out loud.

If the NFLPA refused, then the NFL could point that out to everyone and explain why it went out and hired the best prosecutor it could find, Mary Jo White, to guide it.

The cries from the NFLPA and the players would then have absolutely no validity. They would have had their chance, and blown it.

They did that, to an extent, by refusing to view the evidence or even talk with the NFL before punishment was handed out. They could have pointed out flaws in the evidence then. They chose not to. Their suspensions could have been greatly reduced if they even attempted to be cooperative.

Instead, they played the tired “I’m not going to cooperate so I can accuse you of everything’’ card. It left Goodell with no choice.

In the end, the NFL didn’t attempt to go the independent counsel route, and now it has left itself open to have every piece of evidence challenged.

That means it now has no choice but to back up every point with evidence. The actual handwritten notes. The direct questions and quotes from depositions.

If Payton confidant Mike Ornstein (a convicted felon), Vitt, and Williams say the NFL mischaracterized their remarks, then the NFL has no choice but to provide proof through transcripts or even audio.

Of course, that still won’t be enough for the conspiracy theorists, because some sources will still have to be kept anonymous. But at least that goes further in proving the NFL’s case.

After not attempting to go with an independent counsel, the NFL has left itself no choice. It has to go the extra length to show the jury of NFL fans that the players were indeed guilty.

This could still go before a real jury. Expect the players to continue to say nothing, Goodell to have no choice but to uphold the suspensions, and the players to sue in federal court.

As we said, this will rage on.

FISHING FOR ANSWERS

Miami gauges ex-Patriots

Bill Parcells had a lot of sayings during his NFL career. One that applies to one of his old clubs is, “Now we know. Now you know.’’

That’s the situation the Dolphins find themselves in with two former Patriots, receiver Chad Ochocinco and linebacker Gary Guyton.

Parcells would use that phrase when a player was trying to overcome something from his past - something the team was well aware of, and watching for a repeat failure.

In the case of Ochocinco, it was his failure to grasp the playbook and scheme of the Patriots. According to a team source, Ochocinco copped to that when he met with the Dolphins.

“The guy did all but admit that it was a struggle for him mentally, the playbook, all that stuff,’’ the source said. “He didn’t deny that it was a problem for him, learning it up there.’’

The Dolphins risked nothing in signing Ochocinco. He has to make the team, and he has to play out of this world to hit the incentives that would push his $925,000 one-year deal to $2 million. Just to get the first incentive, he has to catch a lot of passes, though the exact number isn’t clear.

So far, so good. Ochocinco, while not the vertical player of four years ago, still has great foot quickness, can get separation, and can catch the ball. Those are the skills that drew the Patriots to him.

But his inability to learn the precision offense did him in.

The Dolphins are a bit cautious because Ochocinco has missed nearly 80 percent of the offensive installation.

Did Ochocinco not get it with the Patriots because he was incapable mentally? Did he not put the effort in? That will be decided in Miami. He knows this is it for him. If Ochocinco fails, his career is over.

Same goes for Guyton, whom the Patriots made no effort to re-sign. After being a vital role player and spot starter his previous three seasons, the 2008 undrafted free agent disappeared in 2011. Guyton barely saw the field outside of injury/backup situations.

Why? After the lockout, Guyton appeared to report in subpar shape. The quickness and athletic ability that made him the team’s best cover linebacker was gone.

That was confirmed when the Dolphins signed him to a minimum one-year deal. They are in the process of getting Guyton’s conditioning and body composition back to previous levels.

“The ability he showed on film in 2011 was not what it was prior, in ’09 and ’10,’’ the source said. “He’s aware of that.’’

The Dolphins feel Guyton understands that if he can turn things around, he might earn a bigger contract - similar to Mark Anderson with the Patriots.

The Dolphins also feel that Guyton has to be in a controlled environment - offseason workouts, a coach who stays on him on the field and in meetings - to be a productive player. They feel he can be a key backup and special teams player, if he commits fully.

ETC.

Key for Chung is durability

When the Titans agreed to a five-year contract with safety Michael Griffin last week at roughly $7 million per season ($15 million guaranteed), thoughts in New England drifted to safety Patrick Chung, whose contract is due to expire after next season. The Patriots have basically two roads to go down: see if Chung accepts a second-tier extension ($3 million-$5 million per season with about $10 million guaranteed), or see what happens after the season. Bet on the latter. Chung has the ability to be a star at strong safety - if he can stay on the field for 16 games. According to profootballfocus.com, he has averaged 810 snaps the past two seasons - a little less than 11 games worth. Griffin has averaged 1,178 the previous two seasons, 1,146 going back three. Eric Weddle of the Chargers, who received an extension last year that pays him $8 million per season with $19 million guaranteed, has averaged 1,009 snaps the previous two seasons. Until Chung proves he can reach the low bar of even 900 snaps in a season, the Patriots are better off being cautious and using the franchise tag ($6.2 million this season) as leverage.

Nickel package 1. Saints fans like to think the NFL is targeting their team, but the league has been serious about any type of bounties in the past. The Packers were investigated a few years back, but the players admitted they had their own pool for turnovers that resulted in Best Buy gift cards. They got off with a warning. Couple lying with even a few pieces of corroborating evidence in the Saints case, and you have suspensions.

2. The Vikings aren’t going to trade disgruntled receiver Percy Harvin, so stop dreaming about a deal with the Patriots. Given his medical history, why would you want him and give him a new contract?

3. Former Patriots receiver Brandon Tate has impressed during offseason workouts with the Bengals. I’ve heard that somewhere before.

4. Plaxico Burress is making the rounds, basically begging for a job. Seems like yesterday that Jets coach Rex Ryan was boasting in training camp about how hard it would be to cover Burress.

5. Packers defensive tackle Johnny Jolly has applied for reinstatement after two violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. I’m all for comeback stories, but with Jolly’s history, the NFL should proceed cautiously. Jolly first should prove he can function, perhaps with a year in the Arena League.

Short yardage

With Joseph Addai departed (battling for a spot in the Patriots backfield), former UConn standout Donald Brown will have the spotlight to himself in Indianapolis. “Donald is an every-down-back,’’ said Colts coach Chuck Pagano. “He is doing a tremendous job and he is having a fantastic offseason. He understands, especially on third down as far as protections go and all of those things. Nothing is going to be more important than protections.’’ The Colts signed some insurance in Mewelde Moore, who was with new Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians the past four seasons in Pittsburgh . . . The Jets are slashing prices on 12,000 upper-tier seats. Don’t they know they have Tim Tebow? . . . Kevin Acee, the top-notch Chargers beat writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, thinks general manager A.J. Smith will be back even if the team misses the playoffs for the third straight year. Amazing. That reminds me, there’s a hilarious movie preview parody on youtube.com called “Chargers: Status Quo.’’ . . . Good news for the Vikings that star running back Adrian Peterson, who tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee Dec. 24, said he’s “pretty much wide open’’ as far as his ability to go all out in any type of activity. Right now Peterson is working on making sure the muscles around the knee are at pre-injury strength . . . Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez was excused from minicamp after the death of his stepfather. That gave Tommy Gallarda and Lamark Brown time to shine, but coach Mike Smith missed his Pro Bowl starter. “Of course, that play-action game gets a lot better when you have 88 out there, no disrespect to the guys we’re talking about out here today,’’ Smith said. “They did a nice job, though. They’re learning.’’ . . . NFL coaches Mike Shanahan, Gary Kubiak, and Jeff Fisher will be in Franklin, Tenn., Thursday and Friday to raise money for the Heimerdinger Foundation. Mike Heimerdinger was a longtime NFL assistant who was diagnosed with cancer in November 2010 while coaching for Fisher with the Titans. Heimerdinger continued to work before dying 10 months later. Shanahan and “Dinger’’ were freshman roommates at Eastern Illinois.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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