NEW ORLEANS —An investigation by the NFL has found that former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams maintained a “bounty” program in violation of league rules from 2009-11, including cash for injuring players and knocking them out of games.
The NFL’s security department found that payments were doled out the past three seasons with the “bounty” pool reaching as high as $50,000 at the program’s height in 2009, the season the Saints won the Super Bowl.
Saints owner Tom Benson issued a statement shortly after the NFL released its findings, saying, “I have been made aware of the NFL’s findings relative to the Bounty Pool and how it relates to our club. I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation. While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans.”
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton were unavailable for comment and players could not be reached for comment.
Williams issued a statement through the St. Louis Rams organization late Friday afternoon, saying, “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.”
New Orleans could be disciplined with fines, suspensions and possibly a loss of future draft picks. Any appeal would be heard by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
When the New England Patriots were found to be in violation of rules for videotaping other teams’ signals, commonly referred to as Spygate, the NFL levied heavy fines on that organization.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000, the Patriots were fined $250,000 and the franchise lost a first-round draft pick in 2008.
Fines for the Saints likely will exceed those.
According to the NFL, defensive players put money into the pool, getting it back for two types of plays – turnovers (interceptions and fumbles recoveries) as well as plays that forced opposing players to be carted off the field and plays that forced an opposing player to not return.
The report found that players earned $1,500 for a knockout and $1,000 for a “cart-off,” with the money doubling and tripling during the playoffs.
“The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for performance, but also for injuring opposing players,” Goodell said.
“It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game and this type of conduct will not be tolerated,” Goodell added.
The investigation found that 22 of 27 defensive players participated in the program, which was administered by Williams, who often contributed money into the pool himself.
Benson wasn’t aware of the program and once notified of it, told Loomis to end it immediately. But according to the NFL, Loomis didn’t carry out Benson’s directive and when asked about it in 2010 by the NFL, denied knowledge of the bounty program.
The program violated Section 9.1(C)(8) and 9.3 (F) and (G). Each team is issued a memo reminding teams of the rule prior to the season, which reads, “No bonus or award may directly or indirectly be offered, promised, announced or paid to a player for his or his team’s performance against a particular team or opposing player or a particular group thereof. No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on-field misconduct (for example, personal fouls to or injuries inflicted on opposing players).”
The investigation began in 2010 after allegations were made that Saints players had gone after players, including Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and Vikings quarterback Brett Favre.
Warner was injured in an NFC divisional playoff game by defensive end Bobby McCray after an interception when the Saints player blindsided him on a block. Favre, meanwhile, was injured when he was tackled in a high-low manner in the third quarter of the NFC championship game.
Prior to Super Bowl XLIV, Williams told a Nashville radio station that he preferred his players deliver “remember me” shots.
Williams came to New Orleans in 2009 to revamp a defense that many believed had become too soft. His heavy blitzing style was lauded that season as it helped the Saints’ defense become one of the best at taking the ball away.
After his contract expired this offseason, Williams took a job with the St. Louis Rams and friend Jeff Fisher, ending his tenure with the Saints.