There is a code in professional football. It may be hard to believe when you watch what goes on during a typical NFL game, but there is a line that is drawn in the minds and the conscience of players, a line most of them do not cross.
They will hit their opponent hard. They will try to hit him hard enough, often enough, that it knocks him off his game. Make the quarterback flinch. Make the receiver look over his shoulder instead of looking for the ball. Thats an accepted part of what we acknowledge is a violent game.
But a deliberate attempt to injure? No, thats not acceptable. It cannot be rationalized or excused. It cannot be dismissed with a simple Thats football because its not.
Football is one thing. Malice and common assault are another.
I remember a conversation with Merlin Olsen, the great defensive tackle of the Los Angeles Rams. He came to Philadelphia to accept the Bert Bell Award as the NFL Player of the Year, a rare honor for a defensive player. Olsen was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man and we talked at length about how he approached his profession.
When you come right down to it, your life is at stake out there, Olsen said. Im not a weak man and Ive had quarterbacks bent under me in such a way that Id only have to twist them a little to end their careers.
I dont do it because I dont want to and I dont want it done to me.
Thats the essence of the code, I suppose: Dont do unto others because you dont want it done to you. I wont chop your knees, if you dont chop mine. It is a kind of frontier justice that has existed within the game for years.
On Monday, Gregg Williams will meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He should not expect a warm handshake and pat on the back. With the revelations of the bounty system he administered as defensive coordinator in New Orleans, Williams is facing certain suspension and perhaps the heaviest fine ever levied on an NFL coach.
There is no defending what Williams did in New Orleans and apparently at other stops in his coaching career, including Washington and Buffalo. Some people have used the, Its a rough game excuse. The idea is to hit the other guy hard, as hard as you can, right? So how is this any different?
You have to be pretty thick headed not to see the difference.
Hitting an opponent hard, thats part of the game. If the player is injured in the process, well, that happens. But purposefully taking a shot that is designed to injure, giving a knee or ankle that extra twist at the bottom of a pile? Setting up a lineman for a high-low block that breaks his leg? Thats something else entirely.
The league has evidence more than 50,000 pages of it that Williams put a cash reward system in place and personally administered it. It paid 1,000 to any defensive player that knocked an opponent out of a game and the price went up to 1,500 if the player was unable to return.
It seems the players took it a step further with Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma reportedly offering a 10,000 reward to any player who would knock then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC championship game. A similar bounty was placed on Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner in the divisional playoff one week earlier.
Anyone who saw those games knows the kind of beating both quarterbacks absorbed. Favre and Warner both finished the game, but Favre was never the same and Warner never played again.
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy has said he believes the neck problems Peyton Manning suffers now were the direct result of vicious high-low hit he sustained playing against the Williams-led Washington defense in 2006.
Favre, Warner, Manning. Those are three high profile targets. Imagine if one coachs defenses effectively ended all of their careers and did so on purpose. Those are some of the things that will be on the table when Goodell meets with Williams.
Goodell will come down hard on Williams who now is defensive coordinator in St. Louis as well as Saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, both of whom knew about the bounty system but did nothing to stop it. Goodell has no choice but to levy stiff fines and suspensions.
As commissioner, Goodell has made it a priority to cut down on violent hits, especially head shots. He talks about making the game safer and doing more to limit concussions. He has assessed heavy fines to players for what he saw as dangerous hits. Many players, notably Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, have ripped Goodell for his actions which they see as heavy-handed.
The players are watching now to see what action Goodell takes in this matter. If they feel the commissioner, who has no trouble being tough with the players, goes easy on coaches and front office executives involved here, they will call him out. Goodell cannot pull his punches here and he shouldnt.
Im sure the total fines will exceed the 750,000 Goodell assessed to the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick for Spygate. Im also sure the Saints will lose more than the one first-round draft pick the Patriots lost in that affair.
It would not shock me if Williams was suspended for the 2012 season. The fact that he apparently conducted this bounty program over 15 seasons with five different teams is such a brazen violation of league rules that it demands severe punishment.
Payton, who looked the other way, and Loomis, who tried to cover it up, will be hit hard as well. It is entirely possible Payton is suspended for at least a few games this season. It wasnt his program, but it was his team and he allowed it to go on.
I know players assume a certain risk when they step on the field. But they dont assume that someone on the other side is deliberately trying to hurt them and they certainly dont assume a coach is putting a price on their head. Sorry, but thats not football.