Bob Ford: NFL delivered hard hit on Saints

has been suspended for the 2012 season over bounties. JIM HUDELSON / Shreveport Times
has been suspended for the 2012 season over bounties. JIM HUDELSON / Shreveport Times (Saints head coach Sean Payton)
Posted: March 25, 2012

The news that NFL players are paid for being able to deliver hits capable of hurting an opponent isn't much of a revelation when you get down to it.

That's the nature of the game. Hard hits are celebrated, and just as the NHL and NASCAR owe some popularity to the promise of potential violence at any moment, the NFL puts away a lot of dough because its players smack each other around with great frequency.

The league has no problem licensing video games in which the mayhem is taken to cartoonish levels, and has never been bothered by the slavering mythology that NFL Films built around the exploits of guys like Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus, and Mike Singletary, who were all nice enough when they weren't dismembering opponents.

As far as we know, the NFL didn't even complain when broadcasting partner ESPN had a "He Got Jacked Up!" segment at halftime of Monday Night Football that showed the five best hits of the Sunday games. It became so popular among the players that they tried for tackles that would land them on the segment.

Each hit was punctuated by the halftime crew screaming, "He got jacked up!" which was particularly amusing when Michael Irvin was one of the screamers. It wasn't a very tasteful thing, even by ESPN standards, although it was pretty much in keeping with the rest of Irvin's oeuvre.

So, no, hard hits aren't much of a surprise, and finding them in the NFL is like finding sand at the beach. That defensive players are paid for being able to deliver punishment is understood. Eagles defensive end Jason Babin likes to say that if you take the word "sacks" and put dollar signs where the S's are, that's about right. He doesn't mention anyone getting hurt, but, well, that can be collateral damage sometimes.

Where the NFL apparently draws the line, however - and drew it squarely across the neck of the New Orleans Saints franchise - is when players get paid extra for not just hitting an opponent hard enough to injure him, but for actually injuring him. The distinction is kind of thin, but apparently so is the patience of commissioner Roger Goodell.

You know the bill that Goodell presented to the Saints for allowing a bounty system to exist for at least three seasons under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams: Head coach Sean Payton is suspended for the season, the general manager is gone for half the season, assistant Joe Vitt is out for six games, and Williams, who had jumped to the St. Louis staff, has been sealed in carbonite like Han Solo for an indeterminate period.

The league also took away two second-round draft picks, fined the Saints $500,000, and is still mulling fines and suspensions to be levied against 22 to 27 players who took part in the scheme. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who offered $10,000 to anyone who took out Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC championship game, has probably played his last game for a while.

Williams ran a tidy operation, one that kept detailed records of the payouts, which included $1,000 for a "cart-off" and $1,500 for a "knockout." In the 2009 season alone, as much as $50,000 changed hands, and the NFL concluded that Williams had the team's tacit blessing. It wasn't as if he got $50,000 out of the petty cash drawer.

While bookmakers and drug dealers would be appalled at how much information was written down for the league investigators to find, the Saints went merrily along, lying to the NFL about the existence of the bounty program and figuring they were untouchable. Maybe the extent of the league's concern was lost on them. Maybe they viewed the bounty pool as one of those team-bonding jokes, like a kangaroo court. Whatever the miscalculation - and Payton will have 7.5 million opportunities to reflect on it - it was a miscalculation of epic proportion.

What the Saints missed was that the NFL likes to take the high road by appearing to protect the health of its players, but that philosophy goes hand in hand with protecting the economic health of the business. And, boy, when you start messing with the business, you are going to get Roger Goodell in your windshield right fast.

The league has enough problems at the moment with former players trying to win concessions in court regarding injuries that took place and permanent conditions that evolved because the NFL wasn't safe enough when they played. They want better pensions and medical settlements and an awful lot of money.

The last thing the league needs now is someone like Cam Newton or Aaron Rogers having his career ended by a dirty hit and the league being found complicit in not stopping a bounty system that encouraged those hits. That would ring a few cash registers.

Not only are the offensive skill players who are natural targets for the bounty system among the most popular in the game, but they are also a large part of the economic engine that sells hats and jerseys and lamps made out of football helmets.

If it's bad for business, it's bad for the NFL. And that, more than anything, was the lesson learned by the New Orleans Saints last week. Putting the league at economic risk makes the commissioner very mad. When that happens, someone is going to get jacked up.

Maybe the Saints weren't totally knocked out by the punishments, but it's fair to award Goodell at least a cart-off for this one.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com or 215-854-5842. Read his blog at philly.com/postpatterns and his recent columns at philly.com/bobford

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