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Bounty allegations leave Saints, fans with uncertain future

NEW ORLEANS -- On the streets of this city, where beads still dangle from trolley lines and tree branches, the Mardi Gras celebration that ended two weeks ago has since been replaced by a strange and unexpected tinge of sobriety.

The Saints, after all, run this town. And now, two seasons removed since they adamantly proved as much with a magical Super Bowl run, New Orleans' team has created a buzz in the Big Easy that has everyone feeling a bit Uneasy instead.

From Frenchmen Street to the French Quarter, the talk of the city has centered on the controversy surrounding the Saints -- a team that is spending these gossipy afternoons hunkered down in silence awaiting the fate of this strange shame.

Wait a second: Coaches endorsed a program that pooled money together and paid out cash to players who successfully injured opponents so badly they had to be taken off the field via cart? That can't be right, can it? We must be missing facts, right? Otherwise, that's ... that's ... well, that's indefensible.

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And so the Saints' fans must wait, having now digested the facts delivered Friday by the NFL, to find out their team's penance. It is not to say anyone should feel bad for this fan base, but it is nonetheless one strange spot to be in.

After all, many of these hometown fans understand exactly why the Saints deserve the punishment they are about to receive, even if the main culprit (former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) is no longer with the team.

Even after Williams met with NFL security in New York on Monday to discuss the possibility that his bounty system started well before his three seasons in New Orleans, it isn't likely to lessen the impact in the wake of the NFL's specific findings.

Head coach Sean Payton knew about this. General manager Mickey Loomis did, too. And 22 to 27 players contributed money, while also taking part in the pay-for-performance pool. Sources are adamant that the league plans to come down hard on all of them, including many of the players, to make sure this never happens again.

So yes, Saints fans are prepared. Judging by the vibe of the city Monday, it seems many of them understand the depth of their team's sins. Excuse them, however, if it is taking some longer than others to get over the confusion.

Consider their predicament: Three years ago, this city was rocking with energy after the Saints' defense battered then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre for four quarters. The relentless parade of hits on Favre was applauded around the country as defensive brilliance. The feel-good Saints were the toast of the league.

But now, suddenly, we're supposed to backtrack and consider that same effort, the one we all watched with our own eyes and collectively praised, to be unfair and cheap?

Payton, meanwhile, has been everything this city wants in a coach since he was named the NFL's Coach of the Year in 2006. He's 67-37 in his six seasons with the Saints. He brought New Orleans its first Super Bowl.

But now, suddenly, we're supposed to be mad at him for allowing this to happen?

The confusion is understandable.

As a result, New Orleans' loyalty to its team is likely to create some lame excuses for a bounty system that was in place for three seasons. But it's this loyalty from this fan base that has created such a special atmosphere for the Saints to this point. Nobody can ever take away the memories of that Super Bowl run, nor should anyone try.

Saints fans must nonetheless grasp that, regardless of all the excuses they can muster for why these sins don't deserve the type of vitriol they have received throughout the rest of the league, there simply can be no place for a system in which players are rewarded for attempting to intentionally injure other players.

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It doesn't matter whether they succeed or not. It doesn't matter if $1,500 is chump change to these millionaire athletes. The incentive-based attempt -- regardless of the amount of the outcome -- must be removed from the game. And Commissioner Roger Goodell now has the perfect case to make sure that happens.

So buckle up. This ride is about to get bumpy. Will the team lose draft picks? Face suspensions of players, coaches and maybe even the general manager? Probably all of the above, yes. And it likely will be severe enough to have a legitimate impact on the 2012 season.

An incentive-based program for injuring players does not belong in the NFL. It is bad for the brand and bad for the people who play this game, which is far bigger than one coach or one team or one season.

So the Saints must swallow hard as they pay the price. But everyone, including the fine fans in New Orleans, should respect the reality that the price of this punishment is worth the removal of something that simply has no place in this game.

Even if it won't be Easy.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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