21 June 2012

Examining the Flaws of BountyGate's Evidence

If you thought I had truly closed the casket on this thing, then you're probably not fully aware of how pathologically obsessive I have the propensity to be. I'm sure this isn't much of a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I digress. 

With that said, and with the new information that's continued to surface this week, I've exhumed this BountyGate corpse until further notice. 

In the hopes of keeping this as succinct as possible--which will surely be a fruitless task--I'm going to examine a variety of the NFL's public claims and illustrate the known, gaping flaws in each one. 

This post is mostly intended as an extension of this original post, so there's a bit of overlapping content. 

Here goes. INRATS? You've been forewarned. 

(update: please check the comments for additional information I've overlooked. A few alert Saints' fans ((Kevin and Jay)) added relevant info that I missed.)

*1) ALLEGATION: The NFL's Original Statement, claiming a three-year bounty program:
A lengthy investigation by the NFL's security department has disclosed that between 22 and 27 defensive players on the New Orleans Saints, as well as at least one assistant coach, maintained a "bounty" program funded primarily by players in violation of NFL rules during the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons, the NFL announced today.
>1) FLAW: First, if the NFL's investigation was so comprehensive and airtight, why couldn't they identify exactly how many players were involved? Why the nebulous range? More importantly, why were only four players punished if, at the least, 22 were involved? 

Additionally, nowhere in any of the evidence the NFL has disclosed is there any indication of misdeeds occurring during 2010. The only accusations beyond those in 2009 (three games) are an alleged bounty on Aaron Rodgers in the opening game of 2011 season (more on these games later). How does this constitute violations for three consecutive seasons? 

*2) ALLEGATION: More from SI's Peter King in his original report on the scandal:
Goodell is angry about this sustained use of paying players to hurt players on other teams. "The payments here are particularly troubling because they involved not just payments for performance, but also for injuring opposing players," Goodell said in a league statement Friday afternoon. 
 >2) FLAW: Where has "sustained use" to "hurt players" ever been shown? Moreover, what opposing players were ever deliberately injured? And who was paid for doing so? Does anyone know the answer to these simple questions? Or is it just some baseless PR drivel the NFL hopes to pawn off as truth?  

The evidence presented on Monday indicates money exchanged for performance benchmarks--legal plays--but what "payments for injuring opposing players" have been shown to exist? The NFL is still yet to verify this claim with on-field proof, corroborated by documentation of payment. Even if one player was targeted in one game, it is not evidence of a three-year, pay-to-injure scheme.

*3) ALLEGATION: Anthony Hargove's Declaration verifies existence of a bounty program. 

Initially, the NFL presented Anthony Hargrove's "declaration" as proof that a bounty system existed. Specifically, the NFL's hired gun, Mary Jo Whitesaid this about Hargrove's declaration. Emphases mine: 
There hasn't been any denial of the existence of that program. One of the Saints players (current Packers DE Anthony Hargrove) who was disciplined yesterday actually submitted a declaration in which he acknowledged that the program existed, acknowledged his participation and admitted that he lied to the NFL investigators in 2010. 
 >3) FLAW: When Hargrove's declaration was subsequently made public by Yahoo!, we learned that Hargrove actually said this, verbatim. Again, emphasis mine:
The NFL security personnel then asked several questions about whether there was a bounty program, whether Saints' players contributed money to a bounty pool, and whether I had ever received bounty money. In response to these questions, I followed the clear directions I had received from Coach Williams and Coach Vitt, and I repeatedly denied any knowledge of any bounty or bounty program.
No matter how you interpret what Hargrove said, it's (ahem) proof that he denied the existence of a bounty program when the NFL just days prior said he "acknowledged that the program existed, [and] acknowledged his participation in it." Which, of course, he didn't. 

Why would the NFL publicly lie about this? Were they not anticipating this document being leaked to the public? Were they trying to deceitfully sway public opinion by delivering what now appear to be stark, transparent falsehoods? 

Furthermore, Hargrove responded to the NFL's initial characterization of his statements by saying the NFL "grossly mischaracterized [his] words." 

*4) ALLEGATION: Anthony Hargrove on video, demanding bounty payment. 

Initially, the NFL accused Anthony Hargrove of asking for a bounty payment related to a hit on Brett Favre in the NFC Championship game during the 2009 season. 

Months ago, Peter King reported that Hargrove was overheard on camera saying "Pay me my money!" Later the NFL claimed Hargrove said "Bobby, give me my money!" For whatever reason, Hargrove's alleged words were either altered, misinterpreted, or falsified. 

>4) FLAW: Even if you're unconcerned with the disparity in the descriptions of what Hargrove was accused of saying, Hargrove took to the streets on Monday and stridently defended himself by delivering a lengthy statement in front of NFL headquarters. In part, about the demand for payment in that game, he said:
I felt similar to how I had felt when I read the NFL's statement about my declaration. Bewildered ... 
The NFL has a sideline shot of our defense gathered around Joe Vitt discussing what we might should expect if the backup quarterback comes into the game. It shows me off to the side with some of our other defensive linemen on the bench with their backs to the camera. The final snippet has an arrow pointed at me with the caption indicating that I had said, “give me my money.” 
Here's the problem with that. It wasn't me. That's right. The NFL got their evidence all wrong. In their rush to convict me, they made a very serious error. Is it intentional? I don't know. But one thing I do know with absolute certainty...it...was...not...me!  
Like I said, lean in closer, look closer, listen closer. It is not my voice. Anyone who knows me well knows that it is not me. But the NFL does not know me well. They simply make assumptions. 
Furthermore, on Wednesday an ex-Saint came to Hargrove's defense. Earl Heyman, a Saints' player during the '09 season, had this to say:
I was right there, right there in that closeup [of the defensive huddle] they're talking about ... Every time they came off the field I was standing right there talking to them, and I know who said it, and I can say with 100 percent accuracy who said it, and I know 100 percent it wasn't Anthony.
So why did the NFL get this wrong? Why was Hargrove implicated? Did they believe Hargrove was an easy target for coercion because he's twice violated the NFL's drug policy? Did they select him as a participant because he'd likely fear for his career prospects if he didn't go along with the allegations? Did they decide to incriminate him with these words because there's another video--shown far and wide--of Hargrove shouting on the sideline "Favre is done!" after a particularly vicious hit? 

Twice the NFL has publicly accused Hargrove of something and twice they've wholly misrepresented it. Doesn't this call into question the quality of the NFL's investigation as a whole? If not, doesn't it at least undermine the authenticity of the public characterizations of what they've claimed as evidence? 

*5) ALLEGATION: The Saints kept a ledger detailing bounty payments.

In early June, Yahoo! broke a seemingly explosive story about a ledger that documented bounty payments. The original story from Yahoo! (via league sources) indicated that "bounty" payments were paid after the Saints-Giants game in 2009 and the Saints-Buffalo game in 2009. 

>5FLAWS: Where to start? First, soon after Mike Florio (along with numerous Saints' fans) caught onto the fact there wasn't anything questionable about the Bills' game, PFT reported it as a fraudulent claim, and the NFL immediately amended its report. Oops. Oh yeah, it wasn't the Buffalo game, it was actually the Carolina game in 2009! Sorry guys, honest mistake! 

Soon after that, The Angry Who Dat blog further debunked the claim of bounties in the Carolina game and Mike Florio reported on AWD's yeoman's effort and backed his sentiments.  

To make matters worse, the NFL also claimed that the ledger indicated that Roman Harper was paid $1000 for knocking Brandon Jacobs out of the 2009 game against the Giants. However, Jacobs only went out of the game momentarily after a clean, legal tackle by Darren Sharper (look at the play-by-play starting at 12:40 of the 2nd quarter). Ultimately, that allegation didn't mesh with its original public implication nor did it indicate any sort of malice or intent to injure. 

Again, what we have is a series of allegations later proven to be fatally flawed or just outright wrong. Is the NFL really this incompetent? Or are they just hoping that the players and the public will capitulate to their barrage of half-truths?

Ultimately, in the case of the "ledger"--a piece of evidence Yahoo's Jason Cole said could be "extremely damning to the players' cause"--the NFL failed to even submit this, just as they chose not to submit Hargrove's Declaration, as official evidence to the NFLPA. 

Specious. If not completely fabricated. 

*6) ALLEGATION: Mike Ornstein offered a $5000 bounty on Aaron Rodgers in 2011. 

Initially, the NFL claimed they were in possession of an email from Mike Ornstein, sent to Sean Payton, pledging a bounty on Aaron Rodgers in 2011. 

>6) FLAW: Two months later, when the complete contents of Ornstein's email were revealed, we learned that this email wasn't sent to Sean Payton but rather to Saints' spokesman Greg Bensel, who then forwarded the email to several Saints' coaches. 

Further, the lengthy email touched on a variety of subjects and included the bounty pledge as a postscript, one Ornstein insisted was a running joke for years among coaches after accusations of the Favre bounty. 

As I previously discussed here, no matter Ornstein's credibility, the discrepancy between what the NFL initially reported and the actual truth reveals a continued effort by the NFL to alter events into something more damning and concrete in order to bolster their tenuous body of evidence. 

The continuing act of evident prevarication is tacit admission by the NFL that their case is exceptionally weak. 

*7) ALLEGATION: Mike Ornstein corroborates a $10k bounty on Favre.

On Tuesday June 19th, media reports surfaced that Mike Ornstein confirmed to NFL officials that there was indeed a $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre. An official league transcript stated:
Mr. [Gregg] Williams and Mr. [Mike] Ornstein and another member of the Saints defensive coaching staff, all of whom were present at the meeting, all stated to NFL investigators that Mr. Vilma pledged $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the next week’s NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings.
>7) FLAW: Just hours after that report surfaced, Ornstein vehemently denied the allegation. He said:
I never corroborated $10,000 ... The only thing that I told them was that we had the [pregame] meeting, we jumped around, we screamed around, and I never saw [Vilma] offer one dime.  And I never heard him say it. Did I say to the league that I saw Jonathan Vilma offer $10,000? Absolutely not.
Mike Florio continues:
I asked Ornstein the question several different ways, to ensure there was no ambiguity.  He consistently and repeatedly (and at times profanely) denied ever telling the NFL that Vilma offered money to anyone who knocked Favre and/or Warner out of the 2009 playoff games.
Why such a glaring disparity in what actually happened? Why would the NFL claim corroboration by Ornstein when he's so pointedly denies doing so? Somebody's lying here. Who is it? Did the NFL think that because Ornstein's credibility is largely shot, they can falsely implicate him without risk? 

* 8) ALLEGATION: Joe Vitt contributed $5,000 to a bounty on Favre

When the NFLPA released on Monday the evidence submitted to them by the NFL, the now-infamous "transcribed note" indicated Joe Vitt pledging $5000 to a "QB out pool" prior to the NFCCG against Minnesota. Stuff like this immediately made the rounds in the media: 

> 8) FLAW: Vitt forcefully denied pledging the money, going so far as to call Roger Goodell and discuss the situation. After Vitt's conversation with Goodell, the NFL confirmed that Vitt did not offer money even though their most damning evidence--the transcribed handwritten note--said that he did. 

Specifically Vitt said in a statement on June 20th:
I did not pledge any money for any incentive, pay for performance, bounty or any other alleged program in connection with any game, including the 2010 NFC Championship.
Finally, it cannot be emphasized enough, none of our players, particularly those who are facing suspensions, ever crossed the white line with the intent to injure an opponent.
The clarification of this allegation is the most important development of the entire bounty scandal. The transcribed note (see it in this post), which is the only piece of "evidence" the NFL possesses that actually hints at an actual bounty--which mind you, was what these harsh punishments were for--contains information that the NFL publicly admits is unverifiable and, by extension, incorrect. 

Doesn't that discredit the validity of this note entirely? Even aside from the fact that it's a transcription (which was smartly compared to "a drawing of a fingerprint [as] evidence")? Are we supposed to believe one portion of a transcription is legitimate, while the NFL readily admits that another portion is not? So the person who is either interpreting the actual note, or dictating from memory what he remembers about a note that might or might not even exist, is to be trusted even when the NFL admits that what he's shared with them can't be verified as truth?    

Even though it will make no difference whatsoever, it's revelatory of the fatally-flawed and hastily-constructed body of evidence used to condemn the Saints. This note--its relevance, its authenticity, its actuality versus its characterization--is a perfect microcosm of the events of BountyGate. Even if you ignore all of the other reasonably dubious claims, this alone should be enough to invite a healthy skepticism. 

In short, whether you look at these events alone or in composite, it's abundantly clear that what the NFL has so desperately tried to sell the general public has been overwhelmingly flawed and less than damning every step along the way.

It's been little more than an orchestrated exercise in quackery. 

19 June 2012

Closing the Casket on BountyGate

Monday's events at the players' appeal seemed to provide some finality and closure to the noxious bloodletting Saints' fans have endured for the past 90 days or so. Even if the NFL was shown, yet again, to be less than credible in its assertions--hardly a surprise--the end cycle of the entire process offered a calming temporary sense of repose. 

For months we begged for real evidence yet saw very little. Finally on Monday, the league released its raw evidence used to implicate and convict the players. While the evidence itself wasn't so damning or clear-cut, it did move the story forward by giving us a peek into the precursor materials used to ignite this boiling cauldron of demagoguery and stagecraft.  

Let me be clear so as to not be accused of engaging in ambiguity and avoiding the truth. The Saints were guilty of a few things. One, they clearly funded and embraced a pay-for-performance program. Two, they alienated the NFL for years over a variety of issues (addressed in here). They did these things at the wrong time in NFL history and were made to stand as nefarious poster-boys for a league suddenly fearful of the consequences of its true, Hobbesian nature.

What the Saints are not guilty of is maintaining a three-year, institutionalized pay-to-injure ("bounty") program. That this was the original allegation--a misrepresentation at best, an outright falsehood at worst--and that it laid the foundation for the NFL's self-serving, punitive ways, was faulty to say the least. But no matter. The damage is done and the narrative is written. 

It's a bit too convenient when, in the same months that thousands of ex-players sue the NFL over a variety of health-related maladies, the NFL suddenly sends a blistering message to the world trumpeting its dedication to player safety. 

This wasn't so much about what the Saints may have done wrong, but more so about what the NFL could accomplish by accusing them of doing so. 

One game does not a three-year program make
The only actual evidence of a bounty in the 200 pages of official evidence was a transcribed note relating to the NFCCG against the Vikings during the '09 season. 

Forget for a second that this piece of evidence was transcribed from the testimony of a disgruntled ex-employee who may have later retracted his statements (more on that in a bit), and focus on the fact that it took the NFL two years to implicate the Saints for this alleged misdeed. 

Were the NFL truly concerned for player safety, had they considered this act so offensively egregious, they would have immediately addressed it when it came to their attention in the months following that game. 

Instead they sat on it, and used that claim when it best suited their needs. What this reveals, and this really isn't any kind of revelation at all, is that the Saints are just a temporarily disposable piece on the NFL's larger chessboard where protecting the king (i.e, profits) is all that really matters. Whatever it takes. When you view the decision making in this light, you see that the Saints simply served to facilitate the execution of a specific tactic in the NFL's long-term brand protection strategy.

Had to be somebody. 

This was never really about guilt or evidence or fairness or due process. It was only about constructing facades and fortifying moats. Plain and simple. Everything else is a peripheral detail that distracts from the emphasis of the larger point. And no matter how obstreperous our protestations may be or how unjustly slighted we feel or how truly flimsy the NFL's evidence may be as it relates to their claims and punishments, it's an end-result that was inevitable the moment it unfolded.

Monoliths don't lose the little battles. But crumble they may.   

This isn't about you or me or Jonathan Vilma or Sean Payton or Gregg Williams or anyone else. This is only about a handful of billionaires intent on protecting their money at all costs. Why do you think Tom Benson has made nary a peep? If they have to spare a few people along the way to ensure that the end goal is met, then so be it. Tough shit, little guy. All in the game. That's how the world works even if it's "not fair" or even if it's hurtful when you're the collateral damage. 

I could spend thousands of words deconstructing the soft, flabby underbelly of the NFL's "comprehensive" evidence as presented, but Mike Florio has done that admirably and you can read about it here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The only potentially smoking guns to emerge from these latest documents are two things, neither of which offers concrete proof to justify the extreme harshness of the punishments:

1) Gregg Williams' PowerPoint slide that read "Now it's time to do our jobs...collect bounty$$$!" is certainly damning to an extent, but not near indicative of a 3-year bounty program; nor is it near enough evidence to justify banning Sean Payton for a calendar year, costing him ~$7M. If you haven't heard it said repeatedly over the past three months, the punishments never fit the supposed crime. 

Gregg Williams, in dire need of a PowerPoint tutorial 
If we're to believe these slides literally, are we to believe that Gregg Williams advocated shooting opponents with sniper rifles as referenced in the above slide? Did he actually want "suspect[s] delivered dead"? 

2) The "transcribed note" detailing monetary sums that indicate a bounty on Brett Favre is, for now, flimsy and illusory. Most importantly, let's remember that these notes were presumably transcribed from Mike Cerullo, a disgruntled ex-Saints' employee who decided to seek retribution against coaches he despised (Payton, Williams). This fact alone should call into question his credibility and motivations. Coupled with the fact that Peter Ginsberg just yesterday claimed Cerullo retracted his prior statements affirming bounties (a fact not previously divulged), Cerullo's testimony becomes even less reliable. 

Equally important, a transcribed note just isn't good enough. It's a damning piece of evidence that can too easily be falsified. Who wrote the original note(s)? Is the NFL in possession of the originals? Has the authenticity of these handwritten notes been verified by a neutral third party? Absent answers to these essential questions, any transcribed note is just a written account of some random person saying some random things. If these notes do in fact exist, and do in fact detail a large bounty on Brett Favre, then by all means, the Saints' guilt is inarguable. 

Not the actual note, but an unverified  representation of it by the NFL

But that information doesn't yet exist. In light of how the NFL publicly misrepresented both Hargrove's declaration and the bounty ledger--pieces of supposed evidence that were so weak they weren't even included with the league's official set of exhibits--why should we just automatically believe that this league-transcribed note is legitimate? 

And even if it ultimately proves authentic, it still doesn't mesh with the allegations of the three-year program the Saints were accused of maintaining. One incident, though potentially egregious, is incongruous with the allegations of institutionalized malevolence for three seasons. As I covered here two weeks ago, it's simply a distortion of facts to achieve an end. 

But it doesn't change anything, unfortunately. 

The NFL continues its manipulative ways. Instead of simply releasing all of its info to the players and the public, the league congregated 12 select media members--in private--to catechize them on the efficacy of their evidence. The fact of the matter is that if the NFL wasn't more concerned with shaping the message than presenting the facts, they wouldn't convene "an Apostle-sized collection of scribes" to spoon feed. 

They would simply allow the information to speak for itself, but they won't. 

Moreover, the act of attempting to control the message ultimately disseminated by their recumbent media arm is another example of the NFL's dedication to manipulation rather than truth. At this point in the game, it's a formula with which we should all be well acquainted. And it's insultingly transparent to anyone with a partially operating brain. 

Regardless, the NFL most likely emerged "victorious" for the simple fact that they publicly divulged documentation purporting to be comprehensive, justifiable evidence. The Saints were guilty of a few things--poor judgment, hyperbole, a pay-for-performance system and, at worst, one game over the past three seasons where a bounty was offered. 

To say this farcical process was fair, or that the outcome is righteous, would be to miss the mark badly. Mostly, the Saints are being publicly punished for the league's past sins in order to shift existing perceptions about the NFL into a more favorable light.  

That's a reality that will endure no matter what ultimate truth prevails. 

06 June 2012

The Distorting Language of BountyGate

The latest revelation from BountyGate came Tuesday in the form of Scott Shanle's interview with the media after the Saints' mini-camp practice. Here's the important part via the T/P's Mike Triplett:
"The Saints did have a pay-for-performance program, which included payouts in the range of $500 and $1,000 for a variety of big plays, including big hits. And those hits were sometimes referred to as "cart-offs" or "knockouts" when players were injured. But Shanle said that didn't mean the intent or purpose of the pay-for-performance system was to target players for injuries ...
'Gregg said crazy stuff,' Shanle said. 'If you take him literally, you're gonna be locked up. But he was the best motivator I've ever been around.' ...
[Shanle] said players would lose money just as easily as gaining money, thanks to fines for penalties and mental errors. So penalties or illegal hits were actually discouraged."
As of now, this appears to be the most clear-cut and concrete evidence produced. 

It's an on-record statement from a Saints' player detailing the realities involving a program that rewarded Saints' defenders. It's not a mischaracterized memo from one of the NFL's dubious sources nor is it a polemical retort from the NFLPA.  

When you strip away everything else and focus solely on the language employed by Shanle, it's documented that Saints' defenders were, at times, rewarded when (if?) opponents were injured--whether that be for a play, a series, a quarter, a game or more, we're not certain.  

Equally important, it's a reiteration that a "bounty" system did not really exist. There's an enormous difference between the rewarding of clean, legal hits that incidentally result in injury, and a systemic program of incentivized malice. 

Frequently, players knock out their opponents with legal hits and it's an accepted part of the game. Remember what happened to Pierre Thomas in the divisional playoff game against the 49ers? It was a legal hit that knocked him out of the game, and Donte Whitner incurred no penalty or fine. 

That's not to say that retroactively rewarding a player for producing such an injury is acceptable, but it is to say that defenders league-wide are motivated to deliver legal, crushing hits to their opponents regardless of outcome. And a legal hit that produces injury should not be viewed in the same light as a malicious, illegal hit premeditated for injury, the latter of which the Saints have been repeatedly accused. Yet curiously, we've seen very little--if anything--indicating such. Isolated incidents do not a three-year program make.   

What we're really dealing with here--in the grand scheme of BountyGate--are the larger problems of language, intent, perception, and motivation. On-field activity has long since taken a backseat. 

Specifically, we're dealing with the language of Gregg Williams' program and the NFL's characterization of it; the intent of Saints' defenders; the perceptions and presumptions of guilt generated by bombast and public condemnations; and the motivation of the NFL to insulate itself from further litigation. 

Language is the crux of the issue over these several fronts, and it controls the sequence of events. Had the Saints used the term "game-changing plays" instead of "knock-outs and cart-offs," where might we be today with the absence of corroborating on-field evidence? Would the NFL have been in the position to undertake such drastic action as it did? 

Replace the widely-publicized term "bounty program" (the NFL's characterization) with "performance program" (the Saints' internal description) and how does the dispensing of punishments change? How would the change in that terminology alter public perception? 

Remember, we're not dealing with on-field issues anymore. We're dealing with perceptions. The NFL produced zero on-field evidence of systemic malice (rewarded or otherwise), nor did it punish players for engaging in on-field violence (the players were punished for violating the personal conduct policy).  

Nowhere was this chasm between rhetoric and action, and the importance assigned each, more clearly distilled than in Williams' controversial, playoff pre-game speech in January '12. Where Williams' exhortations proved violent and over-the-top, the material result produced on the field fell far short of the rhetoric espoused with the Saints' defense incurring no penalties and injuring no opponents. 

No matter to the NFL, when it came to the Saints, the rhetoric became the controlling feature. 

The language of Gregg Williams and the accompanying performance program, though, represented a reality that never existed as presented publicly, yet it provided the NFL a "justified" avenue to satisfy its own ends. After all, if the prevalence of malice existed over three seasons, then why did the NFL not punish the deeds--those specific injurious plays that were supposedly rewarded--as they repeatedly happened on the field? And even if they didn't punish them in real time, then why haven't we seen those plays after the fact? 

Is it perhaps because Saints' defenders were rewarded for legal, clean hits? Was that the program that actually existed? And almost certainly exists in locker rooms league-wide?

As we've seen consistently under Goodell, misdeeds do not go unnoticed or unpunished. 

Yet in the case of the Saints' defense for three seasons ('09-'11), there was a dearth of on-field discipline from the league

Then seemingly out of nowhere, the Saints were punished for this nefarious system that, to Saints' fans, seemed preposterous. 

When--finally--the league last week identified two games from the '09 season as evidence, they first got it wrong, then were further debunked not by the credentialed, legitimate media but by upstart Saints' bloggers who did the leg work. Mostly, it was much ado about nothing. At least Mike Florio picked up on it.  

Because of that absence of verifiable malice, the present situation is by and large a result of the language used by both Gregg Williams to motivate and subsequently Roger Goodell to implicate. The NFL took the Saints' language, shaped it with a twist of their own, and spun a tale of damnation that allowed them to present to the world their sudden concern for protecting their players--no matter the NFL's systematic denial of disability claims and no matter the legion of former players suing them. 

Again, it was language and its accompanying perception trumping the truths of verifiable action. 

This was the perfectly ideal storm for the NFL to target a rule-bending franchise with a strained, at best, relationship with Goodell and the league. There were allegations by Brad Childress in '09 of a Favre bounty; the vicodin scandal; the association with Ornstein; and the Saints' contempt and disregard for the league's official media policy among other things. 

Here was a perfect mark asking to be made example of at the precise moment in time when the NFL needed to come out forcefully in favor of player safety. So what happened?  

A pay-for-performance program that rewarded legal hits that sometimes unintentionally resulted in injury was shaped to portray an institutionalized injury program that incentivized malice. And even though we're still yet to find any on-field evidence of players being knocked out illegally--or the accompanying documentation of Saints' defenders being rewarded for doing so--we're so far along in this convoluted, serpentine process that what's done is already done, truth be damned. 

Sean Payton isn't coming back this year, no matter what truth prevails.

Perception predominated to the extent that the presumption of guilt was, for far too long, the overriding characteristic of this quagmire. 

And that perception enabled Roger Goodell to dispense and uphold unprecedented, punitive action against the Saints. 

It stemmed much less from actions, and more so from words. 

Goodell's goal was to make an example of some team, and the Saints fit the bill. Like the dim, flickering bulb he is, Goodell publicly admitted as much this past week. As he said, his "actions speak loudly" and that was his goal: to manufacture the perception that the NFL truly cares for player safety (which, of course, is bullshit). And which in all likelihood will prove irrelevant when the NFL inevitably ends up in court to face its former players. But no matter to the 2012 Saints. 

The fact that the Saints put themselves in a precarious position by bending rules and alienating the league office does not justify the NFL's medieval sanctions in light of what really happened.  

At this point, it seems extremely doubtful that the NFL will produce reliable, vetted evidence that concretely connects on-field malice with cash rewards. After months, we're yet to see definitive evidence of either. If it was out there, we'd have seen something compelling if not from the NFL, then from journalists and fans who have looked but found little. It's unarguably weak in foundation. It's only strong in rhetoric. 

As such, the NFL simply conflates "pay-for-performance" with "pay-to-injure" and assumes the public at large is too dumb to notice the difference. Which, for the most part, they might just be.  

No matter the protestations, no matter the injustice, the ship has sailed.  

This was petty theft punished as grand larceny, partly a show of force and partly an act of retribution.

Luckily, the Saints are uniquely qualified to take on the challenges of unprecedented adversity. If it's anything like 2006, it will be wonderfully memorable. 

Bring it on.