Last week, The Classical allowed me to publish a strikingly untimely article about the Gregg Williams era of defensive ineptitude in New Orleans, which I dubbed the “Gregg Williams Ineffective Mayhem Experiment.” Over the last few days, that article became uncomfortably timely, as the NFL announced that the Saints defense had, with the knowledge (if not outright encouragement) of the coaching staff and executive suite, been awarding bounties for hard hits, with the biggest rewards going to hits that knocked opponents out of the game.
It would be expected in a case like this to see quick and furious denials that any such shenanigans were a part of the Saints defense. Darren Sharper, for example, went on ESPN and said “We play physical football. To say we put bounties on knocking guys out of the game was just ridiculous.” Gregg Williams, architect of the GWIME, took a different tack: “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.”
In other words, causing long-term damage at the expense of short term goals like, say, tackling was actually how the defensive scheme was intended to work. And with that confession, my postmortem instantly (and improbably) flipped from irony to wisdom. In Darren Sharper’s defense, not all of the Saints were in on the scheme, so maybe he didn’t know about it. Anyone who watched the games can attest that he certainly didn’t seem to be making any extra effort to hit anyone.
Two GWIME features I highlighted seem especially and inextricably related to a team with a bounty-driven scheme: frequent personal fouls and terrible tackling. The DBs all had the same tackling style—dive high at the receiver, shoulder first. “Form tackling” or “wrapping up the ballcarrier” might prevent extra yards, but they also wouldn’t get you paid. The Saints were flagged and fined for all manner of nonsense: late hits, head shots and cheap shots, too. The bounties weren’t big enough to cover the fines, but that hardly seems the point. The fines are peanuts anyway; bounties are for pride. Bounties were designed more to motivate than anything else, even if they reportedly reached $50,000 during the Saints 2009 postseason run. And, in that regard, they worked.
If this sounds like I’m worked up and moralizing, rest assured that I mostly don’t care. I still see the confetti raining down around Baylen Brees with the same joy as I ever did. I root for a game with violence in its DNA, and the marginal discomfort from this is small primarily because I always assumed this went on in every locker room. Gregg Williams openly spoke of telling his players to deliver “Remember Me” hits on the quarterbacks during the 2009 playoff run and the general response was “yup, that’s football.” And this couldn’t have been news to insiders, since apparently Gregg Williams did the same thing when he was with the Redskins and Bills.
Even today, where you stand depends on where you sit. Roman Harper speared Earl Bennett in week two, and Bennett missed five weeks. On news of the bounty, Bennett replied “Smh!.” Harper, meanwhile, is retweeting the haters.
Adam Schefter thinks that the penalties for this will be harsher than the ones the Patriots absorbed after Spygate. John Clayton thinks that the Saints will forfeit multiple draft picks, including next year's first rounder. Pat Kirwan thinks the victims will be lining up to sue. Kirwan is sort of crazy, but Schefter and Clayton are invariably right. As much as I think this is SOP among the lunatics that play defense in the NFL—sociopathy is essentially the entire job description—the gentleman’s agreement that violence be bound by rules seems to demand harsh punishment. And it will certainly come, and soon.
The punishment couldn’t come at a worse time for the Saints. The recently franchise-tagged Drew Brees’ latest contract demand apparently included Lake Ponchartrain and billing above Wendell Pierce on Treme; Carl Nicks is asking for “whatever Drew gets plus a dollar”; and Marques Colston hasn’t said a word but also hasn’t signed a deal. On the other hand, the Saints locked up their fourth-string safety and a long snapper. It looks less and less likely that the offense will survive intact, and those not-yet-forfeited draft picks suggest the team will be lucky to get immediate help from the 2012 draft.
I thought the GWIME was a remora on the offense—hitching a ride on the majestic apex predator of the Brees-powered offense, eating shit and generally being annoying but harmless. It turns out that a more accurate comparison would've been to Ommatokoita elongata, a parasite that burrows into the eyes of the Greenland shark, eating the vitreous jelly and slowly causing blindness. The shark survives despite the loss of its eyes, and the Saints may well survive, too. But the predator is blind.
Original illustration by David Rappoccio.