NFL has not set the date of punishment

NFL has given no indication of timetable for bounty scandal punishment against New Orleans Saints

Though the NFL remained tight-lipped about its investigation into the alleged bounty system the Saints employed defensively the past three seasons, there were indications Thursday the punishments looming for the club, and perhaps some of its players, may not be imposed quickly.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has given no inkling of when he may announce the fines and suspensions that could be imposed against key Saints executives and players, or if the club will be stripped of draft picks. All of those possibilities were mentioned by the NFL when it revealed its investigation last Friday.

Still, operating more on experience and intuition given the dearth of clear signals, it was widely believed the league would act before the owners' meeting begins in Palm Beach, Fla., on March 26 when both Goodell and Coach Sean Payton are scheduled to hold press conferences. Fines and suspensions could be imposed at any time, the reasoning went, but the Saints do not have a first-round pick in next month's draft, and if the NFL is going to make the franchise even more short-handed in the draft, it would presumably provide New Orleans with time to assess its options.

On the other hand, when releasing the league's explosive report, Goodell said disciplinary action would not be taken until the NFL had conferred with the players' union and "individual player leaders." It does not appear any of that has begun, according to interviews with various parties involved in the matter.

The NFL declined comment when asked about its timetable. But the NFLPA, which released its most comprehensive statement to date on the scandal late Wednesday, has not yet launched what it considers an independent investigation of the matter, according to league sources. The union's probe could be further complicated by its potentially conflicting themes: protect the players who comprise its membership and ensure player safety is a paramount issue.

Although the Saints, like many clubs, often find themselves in an adversarial position vis-à-vis the NFLPA, in this case the two parties have strikingly similar stances. For example, both the franchise and the union have privately raised questions about the methodology of the NFL report. Nevertheless, Saints officials declined comment when asked if the club will cooperate with the union.

Saints not saying much

The uncertainty surrounding the hot topic explains, in part, the silence with which Saints players, including quarterback Drew Brees, have greeted the report. Brees remains embroiled in protracted contract negotiations. Although Brees has been in close contact with the NFLPA, of which he is an executive board member, he has made no comment on the bounty matter, and sources familiar with the matter said it's possible he will keep his distance for some time.

Similarly, two players named in accounts of the in-house "pay for performance" plan have thus far declined to speak with The Times-Picayune. Linebacker and defensive captain Jon Vilma has not responded to repeated requests for comment, although team officials have said he denies the NFL's contention he offered $10,000 to any player who knocked Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC championship game. Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, acknowledged to Sports Illustrated he offered cash bonuses for high-impact plays such as interceptions or fumble recoveries during the team's run to Super Bowl XLIV but flatly denied the money was for deliberately injurious plays.

That distinction goes to the heart of the matter for many players and the NFLPA. Since the NFL released its report, several former players have come forth and conceded that under-the-table bonus money is often paid for potentially game-changing plays but never for plays that sideline an opponent for some or all of a game. That sinister twist is precisely what the NFL alleges the Saints and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams added to an already accepted practice.

'Bad in retrospect'

It was that difference that former Saints defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove stressed Thursday in a statement. Hargrove, now with Seattle, acknowledged a late hit on Favre and said he regrets both it and subsequent sideline comments, caught on tape by NFL Films, exulting that, "Favre is done!" Both the contact and the comment, however, were made from a purely competitive standpoint and in the furnace of the biggest football game of his life to that point, Hargrove said, and should not be construed as malicious.

"I readily agree that it sounds bad in retrospect," Hargrove's statement read. "A lot of things look bad when we look back and realize how they sound. ... But did I personally want Favre injured? Absolutely and categorically no! Did I feel like we, the Saints, had a better chance of being in the Super Bowl with Favre on the sideline? Of course. Would the Patriots and their fans have probably been excited to see Eli (Manning) on the bench with his foot up whispering that he was done? Would players on the sideline have made comments to that effect? Right or wrong, I'm guessing yes. Probably every Saints fan, player and coach got an adrenaline rush when thinking Minnesota might be in trouble. I said what many people were probably thinking, though maybe I said it in a way that sounded a bit too excited."

Indeed, both his emotion and his play are much closer to the NFL norm than the furor surrounding the allegations against the Saints have made it seem, according to Hargrove.

"I have made many mistakes in my life and have paid dearly for some of them, and the late hit and the comments were both mistakes, in my opinion," he wrote. "But players all over the league do the same thing every Sunday, make late hits and say stupid things. But I can say with absolute certainty that neither the late hit nor the comment have anything whatsoever to do with the issue being so hotly discussed in the media."

Scandal full of uncertainty

Goodell's statement said the NFL's report is based on thousands of pages of internal documents, believed to be emails and text messages and the like, the NFL gathered with the Saints permission earlier this year. In addition, the league said its investigation, tabled in 2010 when the original accuser recanted and Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis denied the existence of a bounty scheme, was reopened some time in 2011 when the NFL received "new and credible information."

Whether that new information was provided by a person or some document remains unclear, and the league has declined to elaborate. The NFLPA, which has requested copies of the documentation and a list of players and coaches the NFL may have interviewed during the course of its investigation, has thus far received only a sort of executive summary, according to people familiar with the situation.

Consequently, the union, which concedes it was blindsided by the report, remains largely in the dark about what NFL security officials used for their findings. The league planned to include names and precise detail in its report, but retracted much of that when the Saints objected serious accusations were being leveled without a clear picture of the supporting evidence.

The league also has declined to comment on new avenues of investigation it may have opened since last Friday. In particular, former players whom Williams coached in Buffalo and Washington have said they knew of "pay for performance" schemes with the Bills and the Redskins. He also was defensive coordinator in Jacksonville and Tennessee.

Whether Williams' former employers are now in the NFL's crosshairs is unclear. The Redskins have been approached by league investigators, according to published reports. Bills executives said Monday they were unaware of any NFL questions, but the club but did not respond to an email Thursday asking if that was still the case. A spokesman for the Jaguars said Thursday he did not know of any contact with the league but tried to deflect the matter back to the NFL headquarters in New York. Titans officials have not responded to the same questions.

The uniform backing of Williams by players underscores a fault line the scandal has laid bare between current and recently retired players and league executives and an older generation of players. The former group -- former Saints safety Darren Sharper is one example -- maintain they saw nothing wrong with internal systems that rewarded high-impact plays, again without the overtones of seeking to hurt an opponent, and have no problem with their existence. The latter -- Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton is a prominent member -- have slapped a "coward" label on participants in the alleged scheme and urged Goodell to consider punishments as severe as dismissal.

(source New Orleans Times Picayune)

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