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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.


A Tribute to 20 of the Greatest New Orleans Saints

While many great people have been involved with the Saints organization since its inception, there are some coaches and players in the franchise’s history that just seem extraordinary.  Here’s a countdown tribute to the top 20 greatest New Orleans Saints.  (thus far..)

1.)Drew Brees (QB 2006-Present)

Since signing with the team before the start of the 2006 NFL season, quarterback Drew Brees has not only put up some exceptional statistics, but has lead his team to the playoffs twice and on the second time, won the Super Bowl, a first in Saints franchise history.  During his tenure in New Orleans, Brees has been named to the Pro Bowl 3x and Super Bowl MVP.  Before playing for the Saints, Brees played for the San Diego Chargers.  After becoming a free agent after the 2005 season, Brees visited with both the Dolphins and the Saints.  Nick Saban, who was Dolphins head coach at the time didn’t trust that Brees could come back from arthroscopic surgery which lead Brees to ultimately sign with the Saints.  The rest is history..

2.)Rickey Jackson (LB 1981-1993)

Rickey Jackson is the only player for the Saints to have been named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame thus far.  As a linebacker, Jackson made up part of the Saints famed Dome Patrol during the late 80s/early 90s.  After his tenure with the Saints, Jackson went on to play with the 49ers, earning a Super Bowl Ring in 1995.

3.)Sean Payton (Head Coach 2006-Present)

Head Coach Sean Payton is known for his gutsy calls and as an offensive guru.  During his first season with the team in 2006, Payton lead the Saints to the NFC Championship and 3 seasons later to winning the team’s first Super Bowl.

4.)Deuce McAllister (RB 2001-2009)

Deuce McAllister was drafted out of Ole Miss by the Saints in the first round of the 2001 draft.  During his 8 seasons with the team he rushed for over 6,000 yards and made 2 Pro Bowl appearances.  He holds the franchise record for most career rushing yards and touchdowns.

5.)Joe Horn (WR 2000-2006)

During his time in New Orleans, wide receiver Joe Horn became known for his flashy celebration antics, thus giving way to the nickname “Hollywood”.  Before his tenure with the Saints, Horn played 4 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs.  In his 7 seasons with the team Horn was a highly productive receiver, having 4 Pro Bowl appearances.  Horn also spent one season playing for divisional rival Atlanta before retiring with the Saints in 2010.

6.)Archie Manning (QB 1971-1982)

Although today he’s probably known best as the father of super star Super Bowl MVP’s Peyton and Eli Manning, Quarterback Archie Manning was known as a super star during his time with the Saints.  Despite poor protection on the field, Manning managed to lead the league in pass attempts and completions in 1972.  In 1978 he was named NFC Player of the Year and also made 2 Pro Bowls with the team.

7.)Morten Andersen (K 1982-1994)

In Saint’s history, kicker Morten Andersen is the Saints leading scorer with 1,318 points over 13 seasons with the team.  A 6-time pro bowler, with the Saints, Andersen holds many distinctive league records.

8.)Bobby Hebert (QB 1985-1992)

A Louisiana native, Bobby Hebert became known as the “cajun-cannon” during his time as a quarterback.  Hebert lead the Saints to their first playoff appearance in 1991 and another in 1992.  In 1999 Hebert was inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame.

9.)Jim Mora (Head Coach 1986-1996)

Before Mora’s arrival as Saints Head Coach in 1986, the Saints were known as a strictly losing team.  Mora brought the attitude of winning to the Saints.  During his time as head coach Mora brought the Saints to the playoffs 4 times.  Despite all these times being losing efforts, Mora became the winningest head coach in Saints history.

10.)Marques Colston (WR 2006-Present)

Marques Colston was drafted in the 7th round of the NFL draft but quickly became one of quarterback Drew Brees’ favorite targets in 2006.  He’s helped lead the Saints receiving corps over the past 4 seasons and holds the NFL record for most receptions in a player’s first 2 years.

11.)Dalton Hilliard (WR 1986-1993)

Hilliard played college football at LSU and became one of the most productive Saints running backs during the late 80’s/early 90’s.  In 1989 he rushed for 1,262 yards and 18 touchdowns, thus earning his only Pro Bowl appearance.

12.)Willie Roaf (Tackle 1993-2001)

Linebacker Willie Roaf has the distinction of being the most awarded linebacker in Saints history, having made the pro bowl 7x during his time with the Saints.  He was named to the NFL’s all decade team in the 1990’s and 2000’s.  He played with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring in 2005.

13.)Eric Martin (WR 1985-1993)

During his time with the Saints from 1985 to 1993, Eric Martin became one of the best regarded receivers in Saints history with most receptions, touchdowns, and receiving yards.  Martin was selected to the Pro Bowl once and also played for the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring in 1994.

14.)Sam Mills (LB 1986-1994)

As a linebacker for the Saints during the late 80s/early 90’s, Sam Mills formed an integral part of the Saint’s defense known as the “Dome Patrol”.  He earned 4 Pro Bowl appearances during his tenure with the Saints.

15.)Vaughan Johnson (LB 1986-1993)

Like Sam Mills, linebacker Vaughaun Johnson also formed an integral part of the Saint’s “Dome Patrol”.  he was named to the Pro Bowl 4x.

16.)Pat Swilling (LB 1986-1992)

A consistent Pro Bowler with the Saints, Pat Swilling earned the distinction as NFL defensive player of the year in 1991.  He was yet another member of the Saint’s “Dome Patrol”.  Swilling later entered into politics, becoming a delegate in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

17.)Will Smith (DE 2004-Present)

Throughout the 2000’s, defensive end Will Smith has become an important leader of the Saints defense.  In 2001 Smith had a career high 13 sacks.  Smith was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2006.

18.)Michael Lewis (WR/PR 2001-2006)

Shortly before his time with the Saints, Michael Lewis worked as a Budweiser truck driver.  Although he never played college football, Lewis dabbled with semi-professional leagues before finally signing with the Saints in 2001.  He quickly made a name for himself as a return specialist and was named to a Pro Bowl for his special teams skills in 2002.

19.)Reggie Bush (RB 2006-Present)

Reggie Bush is probably regarded as the most well-known draft pick of the New Orleans Saints due to his prolific play at running back during his college tenure at USC.  Bush has become known for large breakout plays on the outside and as reliable receiver as well as being a running back.  One of Bush’s biggest games came as New Orleans faced the Cardinals in the playoffs of the 2009 season.  Bush registered 85 yard of rushing, a touchdown, and an 83 yard punt return for another touchdown.

20.)John Carney (K 2001-2006, 2009)

John Carney was known as a reliable placekicker during his tenure with the Saints.  After a 2 season absence, Carney returned to the Saints active roster in time for the 2009 season.  Although later replaced by Garrett Hartley in time for the Saint’s first Super Bowl Appearance, Carney stayed with the team as a kicking coach to the young Hartley and is credited with much of Hartley’s growth as a kicker through the Saint’s playoff games and Super Bowl appearance.