Tom Brady and the Pats were paying a visit to the division rival Jets that week, and the reloaded roster was about to embark on one of the single-greatest seasons in sports history. But before the near perfect season was underway and even prior to all those broken records there was “Spygate.”
During New England’s 38-14 win, commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL caught Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick and his staff video taping the Jets’ defensive signals. The act was criminal by league standards and the punishment that followed was intended to send a message to teams around the NFL.
On Wednesday, Goodell sent another message to the league, and this time he came down with an iron fist.
This go around, it was Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints on the receiving end of Goodell’s vengeful wrath as the league looked to set a precedent as well as cover their hind sides in reaction to the Saints alleged “pay for pain” program. But for the wrongs committed in both the bounty program and illegal video taping scandals, the Saints’ sanctions seem far steeper than those endured by the Patriots.
In 2007, Goodell spent little time — six days in fact — before handing down fines totaling over $750,000 ($500,000 for Belichick, $250,000 for the team) and stripping New England of their first-round draft pick. With the Saints Goodell decided to bide his time a bit, taking nearly three weeks to properly analyze the situation before handing out penalties like he was wearing zebra stripes and slamming down some of the harshest sanctions in league history.
The organization as a whole suffered some setbacks in the deal, including a $500,000 fine and the loss of their second-round picks in 2012 and 2013, but nothing they couldn’t overcome with a slight ticket price bump or a few extra free agent pickups. Payton, however, appears to have received the raw end of the deal in this one, as the 2006 NFL coach of the year was suspended for the entire 2012 season and in turn loses out on his entire $8 million salary.
A few other Saint’s personnel were also suspended for their role in the program, mainly GM Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant coach Joe Vitt (six games). And former Saints’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the alleged leader of the entire bounty brigade, may have seen his final days on the sidelines after receiving an indefinite suspension from the league.
The penalties were certainly severe in both cases, but the Saints are now faced with a Tsunami in comparison to the Patriots passing tropical storm.
A season that was expected to have so much hope and promise for last year’s NFC South champions is now all but a distant dream. This punishment leaves the franchise without a firm head coach on staff, and the likely candidate to usurp that role in Payton’s absence, Vitt, is now anchored to a seat on his couch for the first six games.
The most logical replacement at this point is former St. Louis Rams and Saints new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. But that thought it almost as frightening as the potential suspensions of current Saints players, who are still being investigated in relation to the bounties.
Spagnuolo went a combined 10-38 in his three year stint with the Rams, and for a team that anticipates dominance in the form of 12-win seasons each year, like the Saints, that sort of track record just won’t cut it.
The absence of both Payton and Loomis from the picture, for at least the majority of the season, leaves New Orleans at a great disadvantage.
Neither Belichick nor then Patriots’ personnel director Scott Pioli were suspended a single game following Spygate, and their actions completely undermined the integrity of the league and the game. The Saints’ bounties were certainly a detriment to player safety, but the money offered was only used as added motivation to increase players efforts not to cheat the league or dishonor the sport.
It’s not to say that the Saints program was by any stretch of the imagination right or just. The mere thought of entering a game with the intent to injure an opposing player is not only wrong, it’s downright disgusting. But football is a violent sport by nature and each players job is to physically overpower your opponent, so in essence the Saints’ system wasn’t all that inconceivable.
If the Saints deserved such harsh penalties for simply raising the stakes a bit and providing players with a bit of extra competitive motivation, then shouldn’t the Patriots have been docked much more for basically eliminating the competitive nature of the game?
At the bare bones of each teams’ mistake was the search for a competitive advantage, only in the case of the Patriots that advantage was severely compromised. New England’s spying scandal was like injecting steroids into an already beastly home run hitter and then feasting on the far weaker competition — I know, seems unrealistic.
Goodell was clearly intending to make a strong statement about player safety — and naturally covering the NFL’s behind — with his edict and certainly drove home the point with Payton’s full year suspension. But the questions of fairness and transparency still remains.
As a lifelong Patriots’ fan it’s difficult to suggest that any penalty against my hometown team should be more severe, but ultimately it’s both the players and the integrity of America’s most popular sport that should be preserved. If the Saints deserved such a harsh punishment for their actions, then the Patriots should have received at least the same consequences.
With this most recent edict, the league is definitely making a statement in favor of player safety but it may indirectly be making a very similar and in fact opposite statement about the integrity of the game as well.
For the sake of players and fans everywhere, let’s hope neither issue happens to arise again. But realistically, as a result of the nature of the Saints demise, the appeals of cheating may have just become far more attractive.