Saints' cover-up worse than the crime

Like Watergate, the Saints' cover-up in the Bountygate scandal that led to Wednesday's heavy punishment from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was worse than the initial actions.

Clearly, there is a lesson to be gleaned from the NFL's draconian measures levied against its most inappropriately named team on Wednesday afternoon: Live by the bounty, suffer from a nearly boundless punishment handed down by Commissioner Roger Goodell.

In a reminder that typos can occur even in the most high profile of sites, one website headline termed the sanctions a "bit hit." They were "bit" only in the sense that Goodell, anxious to further his initiative toward safety and concussion prevention, bit into the behinds of one of the league's most celebrated franchises.

The suspension of coach Sean Payton for a season, and of general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, hits even harder than the extracurricular shots that New Orleans defenders took against Brett Favre in the 2009 conference championship game. The loss of linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six games, indefinite suspension of former defensive coordinator/bounty ringleader Gregg Williams, forfeiture of a pair of second-round draft choices, a fine of $500,000, likely player suspensions to come when the next spike falls? Goodell drove home his point with even more force than a blitzing New Orleans linebacker pile-driving a quarterback into the ground.

A feel-good story only a few years ago, the Saints are sinners in the eyes of Goodell and the league, and one can only guess that the two most conspicuous structures in The Big Uneasy, churches and bars, figure to be packed to overflowing in the next few days. Then again, had the Saints confessed their transgressions, and 'fessed up to them in the first place, perhaps the punishment wouldn't have been so harsh.

Unfortunately old enough to recall the Watergate scandal, and having stayed up way too late a couple weeks ago to watch "All the President's Men," I'm aware that it's the cover-up even more so than the original crime that sets the standard for sanctions. And Payton and Loomis and Williams were pretty much the football equivalent of Charles Colson, H.R. Haldeman and G. Gordon Liddy. We'd never remotely suggest that even a game as serious as football is tantamount to national security. But the shenanigans that transpired inside the Saints' headquarters were, nonetheless, just as heinous as the carrying-ons at the committee to re-elect the president nearly 40 years ago.

And now, men of some standing are forever besmirched, marked forever with an indelible scarlet letter.

One of the game's most brilliant offensive schemers, Payton will doubtless coach again, but he will forever be regarded as an unscrupulous enabler. Loomis, who had begun to shed the perception that he was more salary cap bean counter than talent evaluator, will be viewed with scrutiny anytime he's dealing with agents. Yeah, even if he overpays for their clients. It will be an upset of sorts if Williams, whose fiery demeanor and runaway ego trumped his values, works in the league again. Just as it was overstatement to rationalize that the "Spygate" indiscretions invalidated the New England victories in Super Bowls, "Bountygate" should not cheapen the New Orleans win in Super Bowl XLIV.

But Wednesday was, for sure, a setback. Not just for the Saints but also for the city to which the team's successes signified so much more. The Superdome will be just as raucous a venue in 2012, perhaps even more so given that Saints fans Wednesday seemed to blame everyone but their beloved heroes for the moves implemented against the franchise, but things won't ever be the same. The bloom, so to speak, is off the Fleur de Lie.

Even before the sanctions were imposed, it had been a rocky offseason for the Saints. A contract extension for beloved quarterback Drew Brees, with negotiations spanning roughly a year now, continue to plod. There have been suggestions from Brees that not all is well. Left guard Carl Nicks and wide receiver Robert Meachem departed as free agents. There could be other defections as well.

The Bountygate verdict of Wednesday was, in a sense, a continuation of the shaky offseason. But even taken by itself, it is a black eye of immense proportions.

Williams was fond of reminding his charges that, "if you cut off the head of the snake, the body will die." Goodell decapitated a nest of snakes on Wednesday. And if the Saints haven't quite been left for dead, they're certainly on life support.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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