|Paul Spinelli/Associated Press|
|Gregg Williams (left) has been suspended indefinitely from the NFL for leading a bounty system for Saints players.|
For the past several months, we have attached a word to the New Orleans Saints' scandal that has defined its every turn. It's been all about the bounty. About the payment of non-contracted bonuses to reward players for knocking opponents out of games.
And today, it just became a side story.
The decision by filmmaker Sean Pamphilon to release an audio file from a Saints meeting he witnessed less than three months ago while working on a documentary has provided a layer to this saga that makes all of the others seem secondary.
According to audio first released to Yahoo! Sports, Williams allegedly encouraged players on the night before the team's playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 14 to deliberately test the will of their opponents by intentionally inflicting injury on specific areas of weakness.
"We need to decide whether Crabtree wants to be a fake-ass prima donna or he wants to be a tough guy," Williams said during the meeting, according to the audio released by Pamphilon. "We need to find that out. He becomes human when we (expletive) take out that outside ACL."
It was already tough to argue against punishing a coach for broadly inspiring players to levy hits hard enough to knock a player from a game. Now, we must digest something entirely different: We're talking about a deliberate effort -- with a specific injury in mind -- to knock a player out for months.
Anybody wondering how Crabtree feels about this one? Do you think some players will continue to view this simply as something that "happens everywhere?" Just another part of a violent game? Please.
During the recorded speech to players from the night before the game, Williams' voice is also heard encouraging players to "kill the head and the body will die." Standing alone, we can view it in a metaphorical context -- just as we can view bounties themselves as a mere symbol of inspiration. But that, like this entire situation, changes when the line drawn between figurative and literal becomes clouded by a challenge -- and really, an order from the boss -- of a very different kind.
"Every single one of you, before you get off the pile, affect the head," Williams said in the recording. "Early, affect the head. Continue, touch and hit the head."
In addition to Crabtree's ACL, Williams mentioned specific body parts of three other 49ers that he wanted his players to target: The heads of Frank Gore and Kyle Williams and the ankles of Vernon Davis.
All along, we've interpreted Roger Goodell's penalties to suggest he wants to make sure bounties are removed from the game. That's why he dropped such a stiff punishment. But what if there's even more? What if the evidence Goodell has collected more closely mirrors the audio released by Pamphilon than just a few e-mails that indicated the Saints organization had a bounty system in place?
Doesn't this make more sense now? It certainly must be considered.
Regardless, this latest layer surely will create great wonder about whether Williams will ever coach again. And those appeals being made Thursday by coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt? Good luck with that.
What will they say? We don't know. How will they defend themselves? We don't know. Will they try to convince Goodell they didn't know enough about the bounty situation to deserve this? We don't know.
But if the culture in place in New Orleans did indeed morph into something so disturbing that this type of savage behavior was allowed -- or even encouraged -- we can all put to rest this debate about the motivation of Goodell's punishment.
This isn't about bounties anymore. It isn't about non-contract incentives. It's about protecting players from coaches like Williams and people who support him.
"You're here for a reason," Williams told his players in the audio clip. "You're here because we saw in you and we hope we picked the right person that won't apologize for competing the way we have to compete."
Anyone sorry now?
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington