Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dropped back to pass 56 times last year against the New Orleans Saints. He ran the ball 13 more times.
On each of those 69 plays, the Saints defenders did more than just try to tackle the Panthers star rookie. They tried to physically maim him, knowing they could make $1,000 or more under the table for doing so.
Newton was a target of an illicit bounty program run by the Saints coaches and players, a system the Saints lied about to investigators for years. Its a disgraceful chapter for the National Football League, and commissioner Roger Goodell knows it. Thats why he handed out some of the stiffest punishments in sports history Wednesday. He suspended Saints Coach Sean Payton for a year, which will cost the coach about $8 million. The Saints former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, was suspended indefinitely (but for at least a year). The teams general manager was suspended for half of the 2012 season and its assistant head coach was suspended for six games. New Orleans was also docked $500,000 and will lose two second-round draft picks.
The NFL deserves huge credit for having the guts to impose such harsh penalties. Some will call Goodells action draconian, or petulant. Some will say football is a smashmouth sport, and if Goodell doesnt like that he should be commissioner of the PGA or professional croquet.
But hard hits are one thing; paying cash to disable players is something else. Doing so in the face of repeated warnings not to is suicidal. The NFL recognized that nothing is as valuable to its franchise as its integrity, not even bone-jarring hits. It was smart to send that message loud and clear on Wednesday. If punishments purpose is to affect future behavior, were guessing Goodell has accomplished that.
The league should be as honorable in its continuing investigation into individual players. The NFL says it has proof that veteran linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC championship game. About two dozen Saints defensive players are believed to have been involved with bounties, and they should be held accountable too.
It would be surprising if the Saints were the only NFL team with a bounty program. The NFL has ordered the other 31 teams to ensure they dont. Fans could have more confidence that the Saints werent singled out if the NFL would investigate further.
After years of ignoring the physical dangers to its players, the NFL, led by Goodell, has been working to make the game safer. That the Saints would seek to deliberately injure opponents suggests the NFL has a ways to go. But Goodell showed hes intent on pressing ahead, both with his actions and with his emphasis that no coach or player is above the game.
Other sports should take note. We couldnt help but notice that on the same day Goodell was doling out severe penalties, the Observer reported on NASCARs planned marketing campaign to burnish its image. Thats all fine and good, but with star driver Jimmie Johnson and his crew chief being let off easy this week for what NASCAR said were rules infractions, it will take more than advertising for fans to believe that popular drivers dont get special treatment.
The NFL has shown it wont play favorites. Another possible upside to that: With New Orleans in turmoil, maybe the Panthers have a shot at climbing out of the NFC Souths bottom half this season.