A months-long investigation by the NFL has determined that as many as 27 defensive players on the New Orleans Saints, as well as former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, organized a bounty system that targeted opposing players with the intent to injure them.
Head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis also have been implicated and could face sanctions, including fines and/or suspensions, because neither stopped the program although Loomis was told to do so in early January by longtime owner Tom Benson.
Benson, who according to the NFL was not aware of the bounty system until told by league officials before the Saints' two playoff games, is not expected to be disciplined directly, although the Saints face the possibility of a heavy fine and the removal of draft picks.
"I have offered and the NFL has received our full cooperation in their investigation," Benson said in a statement. "While the findings may be troubling, we look forward to putting this behind us and winning more championships in the future for our fans."
Williams, now the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator, admitted wrongdoing in a statement Friday afternoon, saying the bounty program was "a terrible mistake."
Among the players targeted by the team were quarterbacks Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings and Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals, both of whom were roughed up during playoff losses to the Saints in January 2010. The Saints went on to win the Super Bowl.
The investigation, conducted by the league's security department and the details of which were released by the league Friday, found that the bounty system rewarded defensive players for inflicting injuries on opponents that forced them to be taken out of games.
The findings have been presented to commissioner Roger Goodell, who will take disciplinary measures in the coming weeks.
"The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for 'performance' but also for injuring opposing players," Goodell said in a statement. "The bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated."
The investigation found the players regularly contributed money into a pool and received payments based on their performance from the previous week's game, according to the league's investigation. Payments were made for interceptions and fumble recoveries, but there also were payments for "cart-offs," in which a player was carried off the field, and "knockouts," in which players couldn't return to the game.
No players were named in the investigation, but ESPN reported that linebacker Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 to any player who could knock Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in January 2010. Vilma has not commented on the matter, nor have Payton or Loomis.
In a game a week earlier against the Cardinals, Warner was temporarily knocked out of the game late in the first half on a hit by Saints defensive lineman Bobby McCray. Warner said Friday that he didn't think the hit was dirty.
"It's definitely disappointing, but I won't say that I'm completely surprised [about the bounty system]," Warner told KTAR radio in Phoenix. "And again, not necessarily the Saints, but I'm not surprised that there were teams out there doing those kinds of things behind closed doors."
Warner said he didn't know of any bounty systems while he played in the NFL but added that "there's no doubt" that players are aware of the injury report and want to send players out of the game.
The league investigated initial reports in 2009 of a bounty system but could not corroborate them. The matter came up again during this year's playoffs, when the league had further investigated allegations. According to a league source, Benson was told of the bounties and went to Loomis before the playoffs to make sure the program stopped. Loomis, however, did not intervene.
"Our investigation began in early 2010," Goodell said. "Our security department interviewed numerous players and other individuals. At the time, those interviewed denied that any such program existed and the player that made the allegation retracted his earlier assertions. As a result, the allegations could not be proven. We recently received significant and credible new information and the investigation was reopened during the latter part of the 2011 season."
The league has a long-standing rule prohibiting "non-contract bonuses." The investigation found that Williams administered the bounty system, with the knowledge of other defensive coaches. Williams occasionally contributed money to the pool, according to the league.
In his statement, Williams said the bounty program was a mistake "and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it . . . I want to express my sincere regret and apology to the NFL, Mr. Benson and the New Orleans Saints fans."
The Washington Post reported Friday that Williams had a bounty system when he was the Redskins' defensive coordinator from 2004-07.
According to the NFL, Payton was not a direct participant in the funding or administration of the bounty program but was aware of the allegations, did not make any significant inquiry into the matter and failed to stop the system. He never told his assistant coaches or players that a bounty program was against NFL rules.
Goodell has advised the Saints that he will hold further proceedings and that he will impose further penalties if he finds out any additional information about the matter.