CHICAGO (MCT) — From memory, I still can recite the start of Saints coach Sean Payton’s stirring pregame speech to his alma mater’s football team before a 2009 Naperville (Ill.) Central football game.
“Twenty-seven years ago, I sat in this locker room just like you guys, on a knee, getting ready to play a game,” Payton began in the most powerful part of “The Boys of Fall,” the ode-to-football documentary country-music star Kenny Chesney produced.
Seeing every high school player’s eyes fixed on Payton was mesmerizing, hearing Payton’s voice crack with emotion was moving. If you don’t fall in love with football again every time you watch that scene, you must think autumn weekends are for raking.
“I would give anything tonight to jump in one of these uniforms with you guys,” Payton continued. “That feeling comes when you get married, when your child is born. So you get it, but you just don’t get it every Friday night. You have plenty of time for tomorrow, but these tonights, they’re going by fast ...”
I can’t help but wonder what Payton would tell those kids now.
The guy who represented all that was right about the game suddenly, stunningly, Wednesday became an enduring symbol of something very wrong with the sport. Like it or not, the ugly face of the NFL’s bounty scandal belongs to the most recognizable Saint sanctioned: Payton, the pride of Naperville and Eastern Illinois University.
Suspended defensive coordinator Gregg Williams might have been the brains behind the team-sponsored brutality. Suspended general manager Mickey Loomis might have been the highest football executive with knowledge of the Saints’ money-for-maiming system. But Payton appropriately received the harshest punishment of a year’s suspension without his roughly $7 million salary because nothing on an NFL team happens without a head coach’s knowledge. That’s why head coaches have $7 million salaries.
“If you weren’t aware of it as head coach, you should have been,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said.
Worse, Payton lied to investigators in claiming he knew nothing about bounties. I wish a documentary film crew had captured the moment investigators showed Payton the email he received from former agent and convicted felon Mike Ornstein in which Ornstein contributed $5,000 to the bounty on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Busted.
Payton turning his head from 2009-11 to a bonus structure offering defensive players extra cash to injure opponents was bad enough, but covering it up made everything worse. A disturbing episode became disgraceful. Now the Superdome can sell paper bags again for fans to put over their heads and cheer for the New Orleans Taints.
Once Goodell punishes the 22 to 27 players involved, the franchise’s embarrassment will go beyond the 2012 NFC South standings.
“I am profoundly troubled by the fact that players — including leaders among the defensive players — embraced this program so enthusiastically,” Goodell said.
In other words, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who reportedly put a $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre, can make vacation plans for September with other dirty teammates. The NFL Players Association and players from 31 other teams might object, but the message from Goodell was unequivocal — this savagery cannot happen again in a league where integrity matters.
“The game doesn’t need to be played this way,” Goodell said.
Those who care about the growth of the game at all levels agree it can’t be. The organized intent to inflict harm makes the Saints’ transgressions more egregious and intolerable than the Patriots’ 2007 illegal-taping saga. Payton’s one-year suspension should have been harsher than Bill Belichick’s $500,000 fine for “SpyGate.”
Heck, Payton should feel fortunate still to have a job in 2013.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees was right when he tweeted, “Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor.” But those on a pedestal encounter higher standards too.
I can think of only three NFL head coaches I would take over Payton, but if Saints owner Tom Benson wanted to fire his coach and GM to rid the organization of stain, he could defend the move. If Benson wanted to dismiss Payton and Loomis for their complicit roles in the scandal and start over with a franchise that has been damaged long-term, he could justify it. Benson won’t.
So after a year on TV — which network will risk upsetting its NFL partner by hiring the exiled coach? — Payton likely will return to see if he can win with a Saints defense motivated the old-fashioned way.
The job will feel the same but conditions different enough that a nostalgic Payton, 27 years down the road, might reminisce about the days before a scandal he could have stopped marred his coaching career forever.