Keeping Score

Saints Coach Suspended, Tebow To Jets: Good And Evil in the NFL

Just another quiet day in the NFL offseason

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At left, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton in January 2012. At right, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow in December 2011.

Call it heaven and hell in the NFL.

Because of the shockwaves it sent across the league, we have to start with Sean Payton’s punishment. The NFL has suspended the Saints coach, lauded as a football inspiration just two years ago, after his team won the Super Bowl, for a full season because of his role in the Saints bounty scandal. An NFL investigation revealed that during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons, then Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams “designed and implemented” a program in which money from a pool, financed primarily by Saints players, was handed out to players who injured opponents.

“The investigation showed bounties being placed on four quaterbacks of opposing teams – Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, and Kurt Warner,'” the NFL wrote in a statement released Wednesday. “Multiple sources have confirmed that several players pledged funds toward bounties on specific opposing players, with defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offering $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFL Championship Game in 2010.” Though Favre finished that game, Saints players were assessed $30,000 in fines for four separate illegal hits, several of them on Favre.

Williams, now defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely for masterminding the program. But it’s Payton who comes out looking particularly rotten in this whole affair, since the NFL singled him out in its report. “The violations were compounded by the failure of Coach Payton,” the NFL wrote, ” to supervise the players and coaches and his affirmative decision in 2010 a) not to inquire into the facts concerning the pay-for-performance/bounty program even though he was aware of the league’s inquiries both in 2010 and 2012; b) to falsely deny that the program existed; c) to encourage the false denials by instructing assistants to ‘make sure our ducks are in a row’ and d) to ignore instructions from the league office and club ownership to ensure that no such program existed.”

Basically, the NFL is calling Payton a liar with no control over his subordinates. Ouch. “I’m not OK,” a stunned Payton reportedly told Fox Sports after he received the news. Payton stands to lose about $8 million from his suspension.

The Saints were also fined $500,000, and must forfeit their second round draft choices in 2012 and 2013. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended half-a-season without pay because of his failure to stop the program. Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt was also suspended for the first six games of the 2012 season. He saw Williams handing out cash rewards to players in envelopes, but never advised Loomis or Payton of the program.

With this sentence, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell enhances his reputation as a strict disciplinarian. It’s hard to call this sentence too severe. Over the past few years, the NFL has made admirable strides to improve player safety. If Goodell lets the bounties off lightly, he would have betrayed those efforts. Payton, and the Saints coaches and players who took part in the bounties, put the health and livelihood of other humans at risk. Sure, NFL players risk serious injury every Sunday. But to reward specific acts of violence is the worst kind of football crime.

If Payton had gotten two years, or even more, for ignoring the bounties, what’s the argument against such a harsher punishment? We’re having trouble hearing one.

Yes, bounties might be a common underground practice in the NFL. But that doesn’t excuse the Saints, who had the great misfortune – of fortune, if you care about player health – of getting caught. They had to pay the price.

(MORE: Pay For Pain: Why The Saints’ Bounty Scandal Looks Terrible For The NFL)

The NFL, however, is not all about damnation on this day: Tim Tebow, the devout, deposed quarterback of the Denver Broncos, is headed to the New York Jets.  Though a snag in Tebow’s contract almost derailed the trade, the Jets eventually agreed to pay Denver for half of $5 million in compensation already due to Tebow. The Jets will give Denver a fourth- and seventh-round pick for Tebow, who lost his job to Peyton Manning. New York will also receive a sixth round pick in return.

Let’s count the ways this deal is delicious. First off, one of the most overexposed, overdiscussed Americans would play in a town that overexposes, and overdiscusses, everyone. (Actually, we take that back. Given that your Twitter feed may never shut up next season, that’s a total drawback).

Second, Tebow can now be neighbors with Jeremy Lin. They can bond as charter members of the “devout-Christian-athletes-who-aren’t-really-all-that-great-but-sent-the-country-into-hysterics-by-performing-athletic-miracles-and-crediting-God” club. Is a city of 8 million people big enough for both Lin and Tebow?

Third, would Tebow, who does not swear, cringe every time Jets coach Rex Ryan, who curses for a living, opens his rather large mouth? And finally, the odd couple pairing of current Jets starter Mark Sanchez – who is reportedly dating a supermodel, and is an off-field glamor boy in the mold of Broadway Joe Namath – and Tebow – a total teetotaler – would be worth watching. The Jets will declare their loyalty to Sanchez, whom they just signed to a head-scratching three-year, $40 million contract extension despite his obvious struggles this season. Tebow is not here to threaten Sanchez’s job. He’ll be an extra option, to run the occasional Wildcat play that is the specialty of new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. Just ignore that we are bringing in someone who led his team to the playoffs, to sit behind a QB who blew his team’s post-season chances.

And of course, New Yorkers will look past this. Especially after Sanchez has a few bad games.

Ah, nothing like another quiet day in the NFL’s tranquil, drama-free off-season.

(MORE: Why Tim Tebow Is The Nation’s Top Christian)