Naylor: How serious is the NFL's issue with the Saints?

Dave Naylor
3/6/2012 11:29:28 AM
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If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was looking for a way to prove he is serious about his league's efforts to curb gratuitous violence and protect the health and safety of its players, well, he owes a big thank you to Gregg Williams.
Williams is of course the once well respected defensive co-ordinator of the St. Louis Rams who recently revealed to investigators that he in fact did place bounties on the heads of opposing players while he was defensive co-ordinator of the New Orleans Saints. That would include during the 2009 season in which the Saints became one of the NFL's all-time feel-good stories en route to their first Super Bowl win.
Turns out the owner, head coach and general manager were all aware of what went on with the Saints, and so now attention is already turning to Williams' other NFL stops – Washington, Buffalo Jacksonville and Tennessee - to see what might have gone on there and who else this scandal may touch.
It certainly appears that by the time all is said and done, the NFL will treat this as a far more serious affair than the New England Patriots Spygate episode of a few years back, when Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 and the Patriots were stripped of a first-round draft pick.
Although just how serious a matter it is seems to depend upon whom you ask.
The striking sentiment from former players since this story broke is that none of this really shocks them. Which certainly suggests that, while bounties may not exist all over the NFL, the notion of being rewarded for knocking out an opponent is hardly foreign to the culture of professional football, or football in general.
"I think a little bit too much is being made out of it, personally," said former Dallas Cowboy Tony Dorsett this week. "If it was me, and I'm a defensive player, and I'm playing against the Dallas Cowboys, and Tony Dorsett happens to be one of their best players, it would be to our best advantage to get him out of the game. If it's within the rules of tackling and contact, so be it. I don't think it's that big of a deal. ... They're not telling a guy to mangle somebody or kill somebody. It's: 'Get him out of the game.'"
Dorsett and others are not so much condoning Williams' bounty system as they are simply acknowledging that grey area between punishing an opponent and trying to knock him out of a game.

Brett Favre, who had a bounty on him in the NFC Championship game of January 2010 told SI's Peter King, "It's football. I don't think anything less of those guys."
And former Baltimore Raven defensive tackle Lional Dalton told TSN last spring for its series on sports violence, Drawing The Line, that coaching players to take-out the opposition is common strategy in the NFL behind closed doors.

"They teach you to hurt the guy," Dalton said. "Break his leg, put him out of the game, we want to win by any means necessary."

The problem for Williams, Saints head coach Sean Payton and genera manager Mickey Loomis, however, is that they are not facing a jury of their peers.
They are facing a commissioner who is aggressively trying to change the NFL's image from that of a league where violence runs amok in the name of entertainment, the players' health be damned.
You can debate all you want about what's motivating Goodell on this issue. And in fact there's plenty of reason to believe it has nothing to do with altruism and a lot to do with protecting the NFL's bottom line from lawsuits and disability claims by retired players.
But whatever it is, the NFL has decided to take on the challenge of trying to redefine and enforce the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour between the whistles.
Last spring TSN interviewed Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice-president of football operations, on the topic of violence. The answers he gave to two questions give a sense of why the notion of bounties behind handed out by coaches is so especially toxic to the league right now.
TSN: What's your opinion of what is too violent in football?
Anderson: That's hard to define -- but I would say too violent is when you take those gratuitous shots, when you take those shots that are not intended to just be an effective play and separate the ball or get the guy down, but in fact when you looking to knock a guy out, that's when it becomes too violent in my personal view.
TSN: How do you deal with the issue of coaches behind closed doors encouraging player to knock out opponents?
Anderson: That's tough, and part of what we've been very vocal about it is that the accountability goes beyond the player, it also goes to the coach who's teaching certain fundamentals, or behind closed doors may be encouraging a level of play and a style of play that is more violent than it needs to. So our view is that if you're playing within the rules and you're playing tough and physical within the rules then you have the right to do that, but don't play outside of the rules and even within the rules culturally we're asking coaches and players that even within the rules if you come upon a guy that really is defenseless, he really is not really able to watch and see you coming and you can still make the effective play without knocking him out, then we would certainly encourage you culturally to do it a different way.
Anderson blamed much of the problem on what he called "rogue players." But the implication of players being turned into rogues by their coaches is much more serious.
What Gregg Williams preached is completely counter to where Goodell is taking the league, the product of a culture the NFL surely knows exists but couldn't really address without a smoking gun.
Now Goodell has one and the opportunity to turn Williams and the Saints into a cautionary tale for the league's other 31 teams, all while standing on the moral highground.
And anyone who doesn't understand how serious he is abut  reigning in the worst elements of the NFL's culture is about to find out.

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