Sunday football notes

In more ways than one, these Saints were sinners

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / March 4, 2012
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It likely will take months for the Saints’ bounty scandal to be completely put to bed, but this much is certain: They are in a bunch of trouble, and the penalties may make Spygate look like a tampering charge.

The NFL announced Friday that a lengthy investigation by its security department found that between 22 and 27 players and at least one assistant coach - former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams - maintained a “bounty’’ program in which money, funded primarily by the players, was doled out to those who injured opponents from 2009-11.

The time frame includes the Saints’ Super Bowl title after the 2009 season.

Everyone knows that football is a violent sport, and, yes, sometimes you try to send a message physically. But trying to intentionally injure another player? And that a well-respected assistant coach like Williams (currently with the Rams) was in charge of the program and even contributed to the funds?

There is no place in the game for that stuff, and commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to come down hard on the Saints and Williams.

But what makes this even worse is that there was a widespread coverup.

The NFL first looked into the charges, made by a player, in early 2010. But the individuals denied any involvement and the player who made the charges retracted his allegations.

Then the NFL received some ironclad evidence.

Mike Freeman of reported on an e-mail trail that led back to at least coach Sean Payton. And that Mike Ornstein, a convicted felon for his involvement in selling Super Bowl tickets and memorabilia, was directly involved in the program and contributed to it.

A high-ranking NFL source confirmed Freeman’s report.

When Saints owner Tom Benson directed general manager Mickey Loomis to make sure any bounty program ended, “the evidence showed that Mr. Loomis did not carry out Mr. Benson’s directions,’’ according to the NFL’s findings.

In addition, the league found that Payton “was aware of the allegations, did not make any detailed inquiry or otherwise seek to learn the facts, and failed to stop the bounty program. He never instructed his assistant coaches or players that a bounty program was improper and could not continue.’’

So there is evidence of Loomis, Payton, and Williams - and probably more than a few players - all being less than truthful to NFL investigators.

That’s where it gets worse.

Goodell has a big problem with being lied to, as Eagles quarterback Michael Vick found out when he attempted to return to the league.

Asked how much worse the lying makes this for the Saints, the NFL source said, “Very. From a discipline point of view, it might be the worst [scandal] in decades.’’

That and the intent to injure puts the Bounty Scandal on a different plane than Spygate in the league’s mind, especially if Payton and Loomis don’t come clean when investigators come back with more questions.

Goodell had a problem with Bill Belichick’s statement to the media after the punishment for Spygate was doled out, but the Patriots came clean about everything during the course of the investigation. They sent all the tapes involved and cooperated with the NFL.

The Saints didn’t do that until they were caught red-handed and, for that, they should be severely punished.

Goodell has to send a strong message that not only is intentionally injuring another player not to be tolerated - the term associated with this in league circles is “fratricide,’’ the killing of one’s sibling - but lying to the NFL during an investigation is conduct detrimental to the league.

The NFL’s release stated that discipline could include fines, suspensions, and draft choices. For Spygate, the Patriots were docked a first-round pick, Belichick was fined $500,000, and the team was fined $250,000. Expect that level of punishment in this case just for the bounty system itself.

That several people lied to the league during the investigation, could - and should - lead to suspensions for Loomis, Payton, Williams, and anyone else who was less than forthcoming, including players.

The coverup is often worse than the crime, and that holds true in this instance.


Brees caught in tough spot

The bounty scandal comes at a very bad time for the Saints. They have three star players - quarterback Drew Brees , guard Carl Nicks, and receiver Marques Colston - about to be unrestricted free agents.

Even though general manager Mickey Loomis is under fire for his involvement in the scandal, he’s good at his job when it comes to constructing a team, and will need to find a way through this mess.

After being unable to reach an agreement on a contract with Brees, the Saints placed the franchise tag on him. Depending on what happens next, a little tarnish could appear on Brees’s sterling reputation.

Players don’t talk about it, but the truth is, the bigger the player, the more said player cares about his image.

Brees is widely known as one of the league’s good guys. And by all accounts, he is a terrific person and teammate. The kind of guy, like Tom Brady, that you can point out to your kids and say, “Be like that guy.’’

So how is it going to play for Brees if the Saints can’t come to an agreement with Nicks and Colston? Fans are going to ask, “Drew, why didn’t you take less before the tag was put on you so the team could be better?’’

While Brady’s extension in 2010 made him the highest-paid player in the league at $18 million per season (before Peyton Manning’s contract came along), it didn’t blow away other deals and was very cap-friendly for the Patriots. In fact, there were a lot of rumblings from other agents about how Brady, who has three Super Bowl rings to Brees’s one, didn’t get enough - because it wouldn’t have a big enough trickle-down effect. And Brady’s contract allowed the Patriots to tell other players, “Brady didn’t break the bank, so why should you?’’

There will also be talk about how Brees weakened a team that should be a Super Bowl favorite - and the big game is in New Orleans next February - because his demand for money cost the Saints a few key pieces, if they can’t retain Nicks, especially, and Colston.

That kind of talk is going to bother Brees.

There were reports about how negotiations to end the lockout were being held up by Brees and some of the other named plaintiffs in the antitrust case asking to be exempt from the franchise tag.

Brees and agent Tom Condon took to the airwaves to vehemently deny those reports because it painted the quarterback in a poor light. But the reports were confirmed by multiple league and union sources even though Brees and Condon had plausible deniability because it was NFLPA counsel Jeffrey Kessler doing the asking on their behalf.

In this case, if contract negotiations drag on and it costs the Saints a chance to play in a “home’’ Super Bowl, Brees has no plausible deniability. Condon works for him, and the contract is Brees’s call.

He knows this. Brees is not going to hold out into offseason workouts - remember all the fawning coverage about how he organized the Saints’ lockout workouts? - so he can’t carry this very far.

The Saints also know this. That’s why they have leverage, and why Brees could look a little like the bad guy here if things don’t work out well for the Saints.


KC would be a fit for Welker

I expect receiver Wes Welker and the Patriots to find common ground on a contract extension at some point. It makes too much sense for both sides.

But if things break down, it will be interesting to see what happens, considering that the perfect team for Welker would be the Chiefs.

Of course, that could be the definitive test of the loyalty of Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli to Bill Belichick.

There’s no question that Welker, a native of Oklahoma, makes sense for the Chiefs. They have a ton of cap space. The Chiefs, while weak on the offensive line, have a great group of young weapons in receivers Dwayne Bowe (expected to be franchised) and Jonathan Baldwin, tight end Tony Moeaki, and running back Jamaal Charles.

What they don’t have is that go-to underneath outlet receiver that Tom Brady has enjoyed since 2007.

The pressure is on Pioli to deliver. After Todd Haley, Pioli is about out of people to fire if the team doesn’t improve.

If the Chiefs are committed to making Matt Cassel - Pioli’s hand-picked quarterback - work as a franchise passer, how could they not go after Welker, who just happens to be one of Cassel’s best friends?

The unwritten code that says no Bill Parcells disciple will poach another’s free agents, that’s why.

So if, say, contract negotiations go poorly and the Patriots remove the franchise tag from Welker and make him a free agent, we can’t see Pioli going after Welker without Belichick’s blessing. And perhaps he would give it, since the Chiefs are in the AFC West and Welker would help Pioli’s job security.

If Pioli really does want Welker - and he should - the more likely scenario is the Chiefs and Patriots working out some sort of trade that gives the Patriots something and keeps the Chiefs from having to get into a bidding war.

That being said, at the end of the day, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Welker isn’t playing for the Patriots next season and, hopefully, beyond.


The good, bad at the combine

To cut through some of the nonsense that comes out of NFL scouting, we asked an AFC college scouting director to put some combine results into context. We asked him to identify the three good and poor workouts that surprised scouts and sent them back to the game tape to find out the truth about a prospect.

Surprisingly good:

■ Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech (6 feet 4 inches, 215 pounds): Tied for second with two other receivers (Travis Benjamin, Chris Owusu) in the 40-yard dash with an official time of 4.36 seconds, and was first in the broad jump with 133 inches. “He had a really good workout. I mean, he blew out the box. He’s fast, big, caught the ball, ran the routes pretty good. He’s a guy that you go back on the tape. Because they run that triple option at Georgia Tech, you don’t see him doing that much. I think the fact that Demaryius Thomas [the 22d overall pick in 2010 by Denver] was in his situation - not having run the full route tree, but he had everything else - I can see people taking a flier on him because of what Thomas has done.’’

■ Josh Robinson, CB, Central Florida (5-10, 199): Had the best official 40-yard time (4.33) for any position. At his position, placed first in the broad jump (133 inches) and three-cone drill (6.55), and second in vertical jump (38.5). “He was an early entry who, on film, he’s kind of stiff and he got beat deep in a couple games. His transition wasn’t good, but you could see straight-line speed. He’s another guy that you go back and you try to find more positives now than the negatives because of what he did workout-wise.’’

■ Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis (6-4, 346): Despite his size, ran 4.98 and put up a combine-best 44 reps of the 225-pound bench press. “He’s another one, I guess, but I kind of liked him [coming in]. I think a lot of people will compare how he worked out to the tape. He didn’t have a lot production at Memphis. Teams will see him a little differently knowing what they know now. I think his lack of production was partly because of how they used him.’’

Surprisingly poor:

■ Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor (5-10, 196): His 4.61 timed speed was far below what scouts had expected. “You see him running by a corner every game. If you would have asked me to guess [his time coming in], I would have conservatively guessed 4.45. I would have thought he easily would have run a 4.3. But for him to run what he did, I was completely shocked. It kind of reminded me of when Chad [Ochocinco] came out of Oregon State, he ran like a 4.6 after running by people at the Senior Bowl. He played a lot faster than what he timed.’’

■ Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama (6-2, 272): Disappointed with 22 reps on the bench and his decision not to run the drills. Looked tight in on-field workout. “He didn’t look like he looked on film. On film, you see the strength and power and the explosiveness, not only with his hands but short-area burst. At the combine, he just looked like a guy, just kind of one speed. I don’t know if he was out of shape or what, but he didn’t perform.’’

■ Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama (6-2, 186): His timed speed (4.51), vertical jump (35), and broad jump (123) were average at best for the position. “I thought he would have tested better. If anything, people keep questioning his discipline as a player. Maybe sometimes he does his own thing, but as an athlete, I thought he would have tested a lot better than that. I was shocked at what he ran. That corner group was one of the slowest I’ve ever seen. I haven’t seen that many 4.6s and 4.5s for corners, ever. It was a really slow group.’’

Nickel package

1. Keep hearing that the Patriots’ top priority on the free agent market will be receiver. Would have to think that Vincent Jackson (Chargers) and Mike Wallace (Steelers) are at the top of the list. Don’t see how San Diego can afford not to franchise Jackson and then at least trade him. I’d go with Jackson over Wallace despite Jackson being 29 and four years older. Both would require a pick and contract, most likely. Brandon Lloyd will be 31 in July, so he’ll be cheaper and won’t cost a pick.

2. The Steelers, Packers, and Patriots were the three teams that always seemed smarter than the rest when it came to the salary cap. After tossing veterans Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Chris Kemoeatu, and James Farrior a year too late - and possibly losing Wallace - the Steelers are going to need younger players to play well to stay in the group. Right now it’s just the Packers and Patriots.

3. At 6-4, 245, Raiders outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley is a little light by Patriots standards, but he would make sense for them if Oakland releases him, as expected, for cap reasons. Wimbley is a good pass rusher, but there is concern about how he faded down the stretch.

4. Peyton Manning to the Dolphins doesn’t make sense, since it would be the Manning offense and not that of coach JoePhilbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman. But owner Stephen Ross wants Manning, according to league sources, and that’s the only thing that matters.

5. Packers coach Mike McCarthy made a telling quote to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about his team’s 15-1 season and early playoff exit: “In reality, if you don’t win the big game, everything else is a footnote. That’s the way it goes. There’s a fine line between winning and losing and a fine line between being good and being great. I’ve always looked at the [regular] season and postseason as two totally different entities. You have to prepare for them likewise.’’

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