Bounty Hunting: Just How Prevalent is it in the NFL?

Okay, so it’s not exactly Star Wars bounty hunting made famous by Boba Fett. It’s probably not even close. But are the New Orleans Saints being made the bad poster boys of a long heralded NFL tradition that most likely spans into plenty of corners of the National Football League? By some indications, that would appear to be the case.

In case you’re not aware of what’s being discussed (I’m sure the Star Wars picture doesn’t help), in an investigation spanning two years, the NFL released a report implicating 22 to 27 players of the New Orleans Saints in a “pay per hit” scandal on Friday. It’s a system that supposedly thrived under now former Saints Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams. Saints defensive players (and even Williams) would throw money into a pool and particular players would be rewarded the cash after carrying out successful game plays including interceptions, fumbles, sacks and so on. Not bad, right? A little extra motivation and plus it makes things fun.

Here’s where it went too far and where the bounty factor comes into play: Players would also receive cash for successfully knocking opponents out of the game. Ouch right?

In a brutally tough league, it should be apparent that the goal of knocking players out of games is a common factor. Remember just this past season when Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said he’d intentionally target Tony Romo’s already mangled ribs in an upcoming divisional match between the Cowboys and Redskins?

But doing it for cash? That’s probably news to many and sounds quite ugly. But the standard practice of performance based pay amongst players appears common throughout the NFL. Former Saints safety Darren Sharper recently admitted such practices were in place when he first entered the league with the Green Bay Packers in the late 1990’s. “It’s something that’s happened since the beginning of time,” Sharper stated when recently being interviewed by the NFL Network (You can watch the full interview here here).

However, Sharper adamantly denied there was ever any intent to purposely hurt opponents. He even pointed towards the absurdity of the idea, stating that potential league fines would far outweigh any payment a player would receive for a knock out hit.

Sharper explained it this way, “No one put a bounty in for hurting guys. It was all about if you make a first interception in this game or if you get a sack, you know, the guys in the locker room would say okay, we’ll put a couple hundred dollars here, a couple hundred dollars there to pay that guy for making a good play during the game.”

Despite Sharper’s denial, Williams himself admitted to breaking the rules although he didn’t specifically refer to the idea of injuring other players (Williams now serves as Defensive Coordinator for the St. Louis Rams). Williams also said he knew the practice was wrong while participating in it.

“I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. Benson, and the New Orleans Saints fans for my participation in the ‘pay for performance’ program while I was with the Saints. It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it. Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry. I have learned a hard lesson and I guarantee that I will never participate in or allow this kind of activity to happen again.” -Former Saints/Current Rams Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams

In the NFL, It Appears to be Common

Meanwhile, player reaction to the practice’s revelation could be described as “unsurprised” to say the least. “I’m not pissed. It’s football,” stated former Vikings Quarterback Brett Favre when discussing the scandal with Peter King of Sports Illustrated. Favre continued, “I don’t think anything less of those guys. Said or unsaid, guys do it anyway. If they can drill you and get you out, they will.” You’ll remember that Favre famously faced the Saints in the 2009 NFC Championship game and received a pretty bad ankle injury (although he stayed in the game).

Here’s a look at some other player reactions via Twitter:

“This ‘bounty’ program happens all around the league…not surprising.” -Former Patriots Offensive Lineman Damien Woody

“Why is this a big deal now? Bounties been going on forever. A “Bounty” left me with a torn PCL and LCL in my knee …” -Buffalo Bills linebacker Shawn Merriman

“Roger Goodell says  bounty program involved payments for injuring opposing players. Who was the rat that told” -Former Eagles Cornerback Mark McMillian

“Not a big deal to me, no different than incentives n a contract” -Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco

However, there were those who came down harder on the scandal:

“No place in NFL for bounties. Physical play is an attribute but malicious intent should be removed.” -Jay Feely, Arizona Cardinals placekicker

“Bonuses given to Saints players if they injured opponents and knocked them out of the game. Any coach associated with this should be fired.” -Former Bengals QB Boomer Esiason

Does bounty hunting in the NFL Equate to Cheating?

If you’re thinking that the Saints Lombardi trophy from the 2009 should be revoked, think again: As bad as the bounty issue is, it doesn’t necessarily equate to cheating. Bounty or no bounty, game plans stay the same and players will continue to make hard hits (it’s the nature of the game).

Let’s recall the 2007 incident involving the New England Patriots popularly dubbed “Spygate.” In it, Patriots staff members were found guilty of taping signals by Jets defensive coaches. The incident led to hefty fines from the NFL and the Patriots’ loss of a first round draft pick. How does it differ from the Bounty scandal? Physical injuries weren’t an issue (obviously). However, stealing the Jets’ game plan was. Let’s be clear: Theft of a game plan is cheating. However, hard hits? Not so much. In the end, the Patriots were punished accordingly (as the Saints will be as well).

You can expect the NFL’s punishment upon the Saints to be even harsher. Perhaps even heavier fines, suspensions and the loss of draft choices. Since assuming his post as NFL commissioner in 2006, Roger Goodell has made player safety his top priority.

Let’s be clear: physical injuries in the NFL can ruin careers and effect players’ lives in the longterm. It’s an issue that should be addressed with the utmost seriousness. However, the idea of hard hits is ingrained in the NFL’s culture amongst both players, coaches and fans.  The NFL itself has long glorified hard hits in media produced through NFL Films. Roger Goodell’s challenge is to change the NFL’s culture. It’s quite a big task indeed.

Is making the Saints the bad poster boys of a widespread NFL practice fair? Probably not, but they’re the ones who happened to get caught. Aside from the Saints, other teams that could be implicated in the scandal include the Redskins, Bills and Jaguars (also where Gregg Williams previously served).

What effect if any has the bounty issue had on the Saint’s defensive play over the past three seasons? Did implementing a bounty actually help improve the D-Line? Well within the past couple seasons, the Saints’ defense could be described as anything but “hard hitting,” despite a prolific offense.

Are the Saints doomed in 2012?

Let’s again recall the Patriots in the aftermath of hefty penalties from Spygate: Winning 15 regular season games straight, 2 playoff victories (despite an embarrassing defeat in Super Bowl XLII).

If you happen to be a Saints fan, here’s your best hope: As awkward as it may sound, the organization has a chance to shape up and use adversity from the issue to motivate them for next year. After recently franchising quarterback Drew Brees, the organization should focus on finally getting him a longterm deal, accept whatever penalties it may receive and move on from the past.


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