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For three years, the NFL says, members of the Saints defense maintained an illicit bounty program, administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, that paid cash rewards for hits that injured opponents. Expect the league's punishment to be swift and severe

On Saturday nights during the 2009 NFL season, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the lightning-rod leader of a feisty unit, would stand in front of his men holding white envelopes filled with cash—bonuses for their performances the previous week. As Williams called up player after player, handing them envelopes with amounts ranging from $100 for a special teams tackle inside the opponents' 20-yard line to $1,500 for knocking a foe out of the game, a chant would rise up from the fired-up defenders:

"Give it back! Give it back! Give it back!"

Many players would do just that, to beef up the pot and make the stakes bigger as the season went on. The NFL alleges that by the time New Orleans reached the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings on Jan. 24, 2010, the stakes had risen to the point that middle linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma personally offered a $10,000 bounty to any player who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the game. (SI's attempts to reach Vilma were unsuccessful.)

Over four quarters that Sunday at the Superdome, Favre was hit repeatedly and hard. The league later fined Saints defensive linemen Bobby McCray and Anthony Hargrove a total of $25,000 for three separate improper hits, and NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira said the Saints should have been flagged for a brutal high-low mashing by McCray and defensive lineman Remi Ayodele in the third quarter. Favre suffered a badly sprained left ankle on that play and had to be helped off the field. On the New Orleans sideline, Hargrove excitedly slapped hands with teammates, saying, "Favre is out of the game! Favre is done! Favre is done!"

An on-field microphone directed toward the sideline caught an unidentified defender saying, "Pay me my money!"

Favre returned to the game but was hobbled. The Saints won 31--28 in overtime, and two weeks later they defeated the Colts 31--17 in Super Bowl XLIV, a victory for an embattled city that was one of the most uplifting moments in recent NFL history. But the excessive hits on Favre in the title game, and on Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner a week earlier in New Orleans's 45--14 divisional playoff victory, prompted an off-and-on two-year league investigation that culminated last Friday in a caustic and blistering report implicating Williams and Saints players in a pay-for-performance program that operated far outside the bounds of league rules. The report also said that general manager Mickey Loomis was made aware of the allegations about the program in early 2010, denied knowledge of it and said he would ensure that no such program was in place, and that coach Sean Payton was also aware of the allegations but failed to look into them. (Loomis and Payton did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the weekend.) The discipline handed down to Williams, Payton, Loomis and several players will likely dwarf the Patriots' punishment in the infamous Spygate scandal in 2007. In that case the league fined the Patriots and coach Bill Belichick $750,000 and docked New England a first-round pick for illegally videotaping opposing sidelines. Judging by the outrage emanating from the NFL's New York City offices over the weekend, the Saints' sanctions could be closer to the yearlong suspensions given to stars Alex Karras and Paul Hornung in 1963 for gambling. Discipline is expected to be announced within the month.

For commissioner Roger Goodell, player safety has become a top priority, and nothing could undermine that more than cash incentives for players to injure their opponents. One source close to Goodell said the commissioner's reaction to the initial reports of the bounties in the 2009 playoffs was, "God forbid this is true. This will be earth-shattering."

In football circles, it is. The NFL charges that over the past three seasons, between 22 and 27 Saints participated in a bounty program administered by Williams and by leading players that paid defenders for specific achievements on the field, including injuring opponents. The program reportedly paid $1,500 for knocking a player out of a game and $1,000 for a "cart-off"—forcing a player to be helped off the field—as well as lesser rewards for individual plays. During the playoffs, the league said, the sums increased. Such bounties not only circumvent the NFL's salary cap, as extra off-the-books compensation, but also violate the NFL's constitution and by-laws and the collective bargaining agreement, all of which state, "No bonuses or awards may be offered or paid for on-field misconduct (for example, personal fouls to, or injuries inflicted on, opposing players)."

In a statement on Friday, 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. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety, and we are not going to relent."

Culture change has been a mantra in the NFL since a brutal weekend of football in October 2010, during which Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed on a kickoff return, and a series of violent NFL collisions focused attention on concussive hits in the pro game. In addition, more than 50 former NFL players have filed lawsuits against the league, alleging that it didn't do enough to prevent concussions and head trauma during their playing days.

"This is a seminal moment in the culture change we have to make," said the source close to Goodell, who asked to not be identified because the investigation is ongoing. "This has to stop now. Every team needs to hear the message that we're in a different era now, where this appalling behavior is going to end."

Last Friday, Williams admitted culpability in the scheme and apologized for it. "It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it," he said in a statement. "Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it." Saints owner Tom Benson said he had fully cooperated in the investigation and admitted that the league's findings "may be troubling." It appeared as of Monday that New Orleans was distancing itself from Williams, who in January left to become the Rams' defensive coordinator, and that if Saints staffers spoke out, it would be to paint Williams, who declined to speak to SI, as a rogue coach who didn't have the support of Payton or Loomis. But would the NFL believe that a micromanager such as Payton didn't know what was going on with one of his coordinators and half of his team on the nights before games? "Reminds me of the Nixon White House," said another league source involved in the investigation.

As with Watergate, this scandal almost died in the early stages for lack of proof. According to a confidential league memo sent to the 32 teams late on Friday, Vikings officials alleged to the league following that January 2010 NFC title game that the Saints had put a bounty on Favre. Minnesota officials also said they had information that New Orleans had a bounty on Warner a week earlier. The NFL memo said Williams, Hargrove and assistant head coach/linebackers Joe Vitt all denied that any such activity took place that postseason. The league said two NFL investigators told Loomis at the time to ensure there was no bounty program in place and that Loomis "pledged to take care of it."

The investigation was dry-docked at that point, but during the latter part of the 2011 season the league said it received "significant and credible new information" that the bounty program did exist in 2009 and continued through '11. Before the Saints' January 2012 playoff game against the Lions, the league informed Benson of the renewed investigation. At that point the owner allowed NFL officials and outside forensic experts to gather evidence, including copious club e-mails, related to the bounty program. Benson also told the league he would contact Loomis to make sure the program wasn't in place.

The NFL said it examined 18,000 documents totaling some 50,000 pages. One of those was an e-mail from a former team consultant, Mike Ornstein, to Payton, allegedly pledging $5,000 toward a bounty on an opposing quarterback. A source said Ornstein—at one time a close confidant of Payton's who in October 2010 would plead guilty to federal fraud and money-laundering charges in connection with the scalping of Super Bowl tickets and the sale of bogus game-worn NFL jerseys—claimed he was kidding about the pledge, but the league took it seriously.

When the investigation was complete in mid-February, Goodell summoned Williams to his office. Confronted with evidence that implicated him as the ringleader in the scandal, Williams at first denied any involvement but shortly thereafter met with Goodell and admitted his role.

The new investigation concluded that Loomis "took no effective action to ensure that these practices ceased" and that Payton knew about the bounty program, though he wasn't in the meetings where bounties were discussed. Last Thursday, Loomis and Payton flew to New York to meet individually with Joe Hummel, the NFL's director of investigations, and Jeff Miller, its lead security officer. Faced with the weight of evidence, one league source said, Loomis admitted he could have done more and that he "let Mr. Benson down."

According to the source, Payton refused to admit he knew much of what Williams was doing. Confronted with the e-mail from Ornstein, Payton expressed surprise and said he hadn't read the e-mail.

There is a win-at-all-costs side to Gregg Williams, a fiery 53-year-old who's fond of telling his troops, "Kill the head and the body will die." Since the NFL's announcement on Friday, allegations have surfaced of pay-for-performance programs at at least two of Williams's previous stops. Former Bills safety Coy Wire told The Buffalo News there was one in Buffalo, where Williams was the head coach from 2001 to '03. Ditto in Washington, where Williams served as defensive coordinator from 2004 to '07; there, former Redskins safety Matt Bowen said in a Chicago Tribune column, bounty prices were set on Saturday nights. "We targeted big names, our sights set on taking them out of the game," Bowen wrote.

Then there's the Williams who along with wife, Leigh Ann, stressed the value of education, insisting that their three children read 30 minutes each night before going to bed. Williams ran charity events in his hometown of Excelsior Springs, Mo., that benefited athletic and academic causes alike. He raised money to found an Excelsior High robotics team and to send the drama club to Scotland.

But Williams was most driven to coach football. He once worked under the attack-minded Buddy Ryan with the Oilers, and he preaches a similarly physical, punishing style predicated on blitzing and turnovers. To entice him to come to New Orleans in 2009 to improve a D that had ranked 23rd the previous year, Payton personally paid $250,000 of Williams's first-year salary—enough to ensure that the Saints beat out Green Bay for his services. And Williams's driven ways worked: While the defense's overall ranking didn't improve in '09, New Orleans went from tied for 20th in takeaways to second.

Along the way Williams inspired a loyalty among his players that recalled the Bears' devotion to Ryan in the '80s. And Payton was confident enough in him that he ceded control of the defense's preparations to Williams, instead spending his Saturday nights working on the offensive play script. It's wrong, though, to say that Williams ran the pay-for-performance system by himself. One player who was in those Saturday defensive meetings says the energy among the players sometimes built to such a height that he was surprised to hear the words that came out of his own mouth. Another source said that linebacker Scott Fujita and two other defensive leaders contributed between $2,000 and $10,000 to the performance and bounty pool. Williams preached intense team play, and the players relished their roles as funders and benefactors.

On Sunday, Fujita said, "Over the years I've paid out a lot of money for big plays like interceptions, sacks and special teams tackles inside the 20. But I've never made a payment for intentionally injuring another player." Fujita said he didn't think he ever put money into a collective pot; rather when a teammate made a play, Fujita handed him the money he'd promised.

Fujita's name in the investigation is noteworthy. After signing with the Browns as a free agent a month after the Super Bowl win, he accepted a nomination to the NFL Players Association's executive board. During the 2011 negotiations on the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement, he and former Cardinals and Steelers special teams star Sean Morey pushed hard for improvements in working conditions, including fewer full-contact practices during the season. It was Fujita's emphasis on health care for former players who have debilitating illnesses, such as close friend and former Saints safety Steve Gleason, who suffers from ALS, that helped persuade the two sides to include lifetime care for ex-players with that disease. It's hard to reconcile Fujita's being part of the problem in 2009 and part of the solution in 2011.

"You don't spend time with guys like Sean Morey and other former players, or have close friends whose health fails them, possibly because of this game, and not be affected by that," Fujita said. "I wanted to be part of the paradigm shift."

It is likely Goodell will come down hardest on Williams, Payton, Loomis and Vilma, in that order. Williams oversaw the program in New Orleans and may have run similar ones in previous coaching stops. He might have mitigated his punishment with his contrition, but he should expect a significant suspension, perhaps half a season or more.

Payton and Loomis may be equally at fault in the eyes of the league. The confidential memo to owners last week said that Payton "failed to stop the bounty program" by not exercising proper institutional control. The league had particularly harsh words for Loomis: "He failed to ensure that the club, and the coaching staff he supervised, conducted themselves in a way consistent with league rules, and further failed to carry out the express instructions of the club's owner." The Saints may have to do without Payton and Loomis for four games or more in 2012. As for the players, Vilma seems likely to get a multigame ban. Benson personally appears to be in the clear—"There is no evidence to suggest that Saints ownership had any knowledge of the bounty program," the league memo said—but the franchise will almost certainly face penalties including a heavy fine and loss of one or more draft choices. That would be problematic for the Saints, who traded their 2012 first-round pick last year to the Patriots and don't make a selection until No. 59. Goodell could take that pick, or wait until 2013 to dock New Orleans a first-rounder. Or he could do both.

Far away from the furor, the object of much of that January 2010 mayhem didn't seem particularly ruffled. Reached on his 465-acre ranch just west of Hattiesburg, Miss., on Friday, Favre told SI, "Since that game, I haven't gone a week without someone asking me whether I thought there was a bounty on me that day. Now it's come out to be true. But it's football. I'm not going to make a big deal of it." The commissioner will.

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BIG UNEASY Hits such as this one by Hargrove, which drew a roughing-the-passer penalty, raised the Vikings' suspicions that New Orleans players were intentionally attempting to hurt Favre in the January 2010 NFC title game.



IN THE MIDDLE So coveted was Williams (in cap) by New Orleans that Payton paid $250,000 of Williams's first-year salary to bring him aboard.



REVERBERATIONS Warner, like Favre, was rocked by the Saints in the playoffs during their Super Bowl season; two years later (from left) Loomis, Williams and Payton face league discipline.



[See caption above]