by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

In what has been the “Year of the Scandal” in sports, the New Orleans Saints have provided one of the lead headlines. Indeed, if not for the sordid situation at Penn State, the Saints’ “Bounty-Gate” would likely have been the main scandal storyline of the sports year.

The specifics of Bounty-Gate have been well-documented. Its aftermath included a slew of suspensions, including an indefinite one to former d.c. Gregg Williams, who had already moved on to the Rams after last season. But New Orleans HC Sean Payton and LB Jonathan Vilma were punished for the entire 2012 season, while GM Mickey Loomis was sent to the penalty box for the first eight games of the campaign. Interim HC Joe Vitt will be docked the first six games of the regular season; defensive end Will Smith has been suspended four games.

A couple of former Saints got caught in the crossfire, too. DT Anthony Hargrove, who had moved on to the Green Bay Packers (from whom he was just released), was suspended for eight games; LB Scott Fujita, who had moved on to the Cleveland Browns, was docked three games. The Saints were also fined $500,000--the maximum sanction permitted under the league constitution. Moreover, the league stripped the Saints of their second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013 (their first-round pick in 2012 had already been traded to the New England Patriots, and therefore could not be taken away; after the penalty; the Saints' first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft was a third-rounder).

Hardly the pro football equivalent of a jaywalking ticket.

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Prior to the suspensions, the Saints were considered a prime contender for their second Super Bowl berth in four seasons, one many believed a 13-3 New Orleans side was unfortunate not to attain a year ago when falling in extremely gut-wrenching fashion to the 49ers in a 36-32 Division Round shootout at Candlestick Park.

Las Vegas oddsmakers, however, still suspect the Saints are in with a shout to get back to the “Supe” and have not been dissuaded too much by “Bounty-Gate” or the well-established NFC South pattern in which no defending division champ has repeated since the league realigned in 2002. Although the season-win number has been reduced to 9 ½ at the majority of Nevada wagering outlets, the Saints are still favored to win the NFC South, priced at even money, and are among the top-shelf sides in odds to win the conference (13/2) and Super Bowl (12/1).

Most expected that heavy penalties were coming the Saints' way when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell got around to handing out punishments. Still, most pro football observers were thrown back in their chairs by the severity of the penalties, especially the one-year suspension of HC Payton. Most were expecting a suspension for the head coach, but more along the lines of 4-6, perhaps 8 games at the most. The indefinite suspension of d.c. Williams came as less of a surprise, as did the draft picks and monentary penalties.

There were a variety of angles to the Saints' bounty situation which no doubt motivated Goodell but, we believe, present a potentially tricky precedent being set. Some of the factors included:

a) The Saints' evasiveness in answering the original charges and attempts to deflect the internal investigation. This reminds of Southern Cal's behavior with the NCAA regarding the penalties handed out during the investigation of the Reggie Bush illegal benefits situation a couple of years ago. Like the Trojans, the Saints likely received extra punishment for not being fully cooperative.

b) Goodell looking to make a statement. It is not lost upon NFL observers how Goodell was made to look way behind the curve when called before Congress in October of 2009 regarding the concussion and head trauma issue in the NFL. The league has made numerous strides in those regards since, but Goodell (at least in his own mind, we believe) needed to rehab his reputation when the opportunity presented itself. Bounty-Gate provided that chance.

c) Legal issues. No one has to tell Goodell or the NFL of the litigious nature of society. The league is already in the crosshairs of a number of former players who suffered debilitating injuries during their playing careers, many of those relating to head trauma. (We’ll be addressing this topic in an early-season editorial in TGS.) The last thing Goodell or the league needs right now is to hand the equivalent of a loaded gun to an army of attorneys who could make a lot more trouble for the league if one of the players happened to be maimed or otherwise incapacitated by the bounty system. Though football is a violent game, the concept of the bounty system crosses the line into potential criminal behavior, with possible charges of mayhem, assault, or other serious crimes suddenly a concern. Sensing more potential legal problems in the future, Goodell had to act quickly to hopefully stamp out the problem that might be more widespread than just the Saints' clubhouse. After last summer's lockout and the growing number of retired players contemplating legal action for mis-diagnosis for their long-ago injuries, the last thing Goodell needs these days is another extended controversy on his hands.

d) Potentially dangerous precedent. Here is where we believe Goodell could eventually have put himself in a pickle by the extent of the punishment to Sean Payton. By setting the penalty bar so high, what if evidence emerges of other teams running similar "bounties" as did the Saints? What if half (or more) of the coaches in the league had similar shenanigans going on in their locker rooms regarding bounties? Would Goodell be ready to suspend half of the coaches in the league? And would Goodell automatically punish the head coach with the same penalty handed to Payton? Will he judge the severity of the "bounty" and have a tiered punishment system?

Although we cannot say with any certainty if similar, Saints-like bounty systems were present elsewhere in the league, let's just say we would be shocked if the Saints were the only transgressor. This is not the first time the "bounty" concept has been made public; Buddy Ryan's Eagles were implicated many years ago for supposedly having a bounty out for Cowboys PK Luis Zendejas. And remember the infamous "body bag" game Ryan's Eagles played against the Redskins?

Pro football is an inherently violent game, wherein normal rules of societal conduct are often ignored. So we suspect the bounty concept was a lot more widespread than just the Saints' clubhouse.

Team owners and coaches had to respond to Goodell in the spring that no similar bounty systems exist within their teams. We'd bet a not-so-small amount that more than a few NFL coaches were gulping nervously at having to deny the existence of such activities to the commish. Disclosure of such activities would come with a harsh penalty, and the "code" among players has already been broken by someone who undoubtedly was a snitch to the league office about the Saints' activities. Not that being a snitch was a bad thing in this scenario.

Without the resources to conduct widespread investigations such as the case with the Saints, we doubt Goodell will be sending an army of investigators to each team to each team in the future. The hope, from Goodell's point of view, is that the severe penalties to the Saints and Sean Payton will act as a powerful deterrent, which is exactly the message Pete Rozelle put across to Alex Karras and Paul Hornung when suspending them for the 1963 season for betting on games and their association with "undesirable" elements. Joe Namath's brief retirement in 1969 related to his ownership interest in the Bachelors III nightclub was also a reaction to Rozelle ordering his disassociation with elements connected to the club.

We also aren't naive enough to think the Saints were the only team doing these sorts of things. As for the punishments, however, it reminds us of someone getting pulled over for going 75 MPH in a 60 MPH zone, and trying to talk their way out of a traffic ticket by saying it was the flow of traffic at the time. To which the officer responds, "You were still speeding."

The Saints simply got caught speeding.

Meanwhile, as the regular season approaches, New Orleans has appointed OL coach Aaron Kromer as the “interim interim” head coach while Vitt (right) deals with his own six-game suspension, which allowed him to coach in training camp and through the preseason. The current plan is for Kromer to steer the ship through the October 21 game vs. Tampa Bay, with Vitt returning and reassuming his “official” interim HC label for Game Seven, an October 28 Sunday night special at Denver against Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

As for Sean Payton, NFC sources suggest his absence this fall could be more detrimental than most realize. Not only because of the smooth working relationship he has forged with QB Drew Brees, but how that carries over into game-planning and play-calling, specialties in which Payton is in the NFL’s upper tier.

Regarding Brees, it wasn’t a comfortable offseason, either, as he endured several bruising rounds of contract negotiations before finally agreeing upon a mega-deal in mid-July that makes him the NFL’s first $20 million per-year player. Moreover, he came under some fire for pointed criticisms of league commissioner Roger Goodell. “Nobody trusts him,” said Brees about Goodell in an interview with SI’s Peter King.

If anyone deserves that sort of record contract, however, it is probably Brees, who broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old league passing record with 5476 yards while adding 46 TD passes. Moroever, Brees, now entering his 12th NFL season, shows no signs of slowing down. Brees also is said to be comfy with o.c. Pete Carmichael, who can hopefully help minimize Payton’s absence, although the New Orleans “O” was a bit sluggish early in the preseason, perhaps due to the fact Brees skipped all of the springtime OTAs while haggling with owner Tom Benson, and didn’t reunite with his teammates until settling the contract situation very early in training camp.

Brees and the Saints led the league in passing at a whopping 334 yards per game but it was hardly a one-armed strike force last fall, as Drew got plenty of help from an infantry that ranked sixth in the league at 133 ypg. New additions Darren Sproles and Alabama Heisman winner Mark Ingram blended in well with a healthy Pierre Thomas to power the infantry last season.

Brees returns almost all of his preferred receiving targets as well, including TE Jimmy Graham (right), the ex-Miami Hurricane hoopster who has blossomed into a mega-force after snaring 99 passes for 11 TDs a year ago. One minor concern was that G Carl Nicks departed for Tampa Bay in free-agency, threatening the continuity of one of the league’s most-cohesive lines, although the team moved quicky to ink ex-Raven Pro Bowler Ben Grubbs as his replacement.

The defense is undergoing an adjustment phase under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo (left), whose professorial demeanor is a sharp contrast from drill-sergeant predecessor Williams, who as mentioned had moved to St. Louis before he was caught in the Bounty-Gate whirlpool. Spagnuolo, the former Rams HC and decorated d.c. for the Super Bowl-winning 2007 Giants, will employ more-complex 4-3 looks than did Williams, and the stop unit spent much of the offseason digesting the Spagnuolo schemes.

Despite Williams’ attack-minded philosophy, the Saints rarely put enough pressure on opposing QBs, something “Spags” will be addressing throughout preseason. Adding DT Brodrick Bunkley (right, in preseason action vs. the Jags), a free agent via Denver, in the offseason should bolster the defensive front. Free-agent LBs Curtis Lofton (ex-Falcons) and David Hawthorne (ex-Seahawks) were also added to the mix. But Will Smith’s early-season suspension puts more pressure on 2nd-year DE Cam Jordan to be more productive after only recording one sack a year ago.

Early preseason efforts, however, indicated that the Saints were adjusting seamlessly to Spagnuolo’s more-complicated schemes, although sloppy tackling was evident in a 27-24 loss to the Jaguars on August 17.

Spread-wise, the Vitt/Kromer combination would figure to be hard-pressed to match the 13-5 spread mark that Payton fashioned a year ago.

Summary...Of the many fascinating storylines to follow through the fast-approaching NFL campaign, none might intrigue more than the Saints as they attempt to deal with the unprecedented suspensions handed down by Roger Goodell. Enough pieces, however, remain in place for the Saints to be a viable title contender, especially with Brees in the fold and the “D” in good hands with respected coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. But it is admittedly uncharted territory that New Orleans is entering with a pair of interim head coaches slated to pilot the team through the season, and Payton’s absence from game-planning and play-calling could be more detrimental than many realize.

Even without Payton, the Saints’ win total of 9 ½ appears to have been downgraded a bit much, considering the team won 13 games a year ago. All bets are off should Brees go down, but as long as he’s on the field, expect New Orleans to get to double-digit wins again and perhaps break that NFC South “no-repeat” pattern over the past decade.


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