Vikings fans have been upset with the actions of Gregg Williams for more than two years. At the time of the Saints’ win over the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game in January 2010, fans, players and coaches alike were crying foul at the tactics employed by the Saints. As an afterthought note shortly after the Vikings’ loss at the Superdome, Viking Update commented in passing that, if Brett Favre didn’t return, two Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks (Favre and Kurt Warner) will have played their last game one week apart in the Superdome – both crippled by the Saints defense.
The rest of the NFL world became aware of the Saints’ evil doings earlier this year. Until Thursday, all anyone had to go on was the word of the NFL that an investigation discovered clear evidence showing a pattern of conduct and initiatives to not only beat up opposing players, but to intentionally injure them by any means necessary.
As the Bountygate scandal broke and subsequently unfolded, a flurry of stories followed claiming that Williams had used a similar bounty system as the defensive coordinator with the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills. It became clear that Williams was at the heart of the investigation and, when the penalty phase came down against the coaches, front office and the Saints organization, many thought the punishment was too heavy-handed. The general impression from media, players and fans was that Commissioner Roger Goodell was wielding a heavy hammer. After all, Bill Belichick got just a one-game suspension for his culpability in the Spygate scandal – the closest thing we’ve had to “breaking the code” of sportsmanship in the game prior to Bountygate.
A month ago, I was accused of overreaction by some colleagues and friends after I said that, given the NFL’s mountain of clear-cut evidence and the recidivism of Williams’ “pay-to-maim” programs, his suspension should be a lifetime ban. Some guys just can’t be rehabilitated. Head coach Sean Payton was given a one-year suspension – important because it was a finite sentence. It was supposed to begin April 1, 2012 and would expire March 30, 2013. In many ways, it was like a one-year jail sentence. Williams, however, received a suspension of indeterminate time. When announced last month, it was said that, after one year, his situation would be reviewed and he could apply for reinstatement. No promises were made, but it was clear to many observers that the information the NFL had on Williams seemed to be much more damning than what they had on Payton or assistant head coach Joe Vitt (who got a six-game suspension for his role in the subsequent cover-up).
All that was missing from the story was, as it typically is in a cover-up, the smoking gun. During the Watergate scandal, what really turned the tide against the Nixon Administration was when the nation heard Nixon’s voice on tape confirming the cover-up. It was one thing to read or hear about the reporting being done by Woodward and Bernstein, but when Nixon’s voice was heard discussing the payment of hush money, it was all over for Tricky Dick. Thursday, the smoking gun was unveiled and the sentiment toward Williams has changed accordingly.
Most of us woke up Thursday learning of the release of audio from a documentary filmmaker that made it quite clear Williams was instructing players to hit quarterback Alex Smith in the chin, “kill” Frank Gore’s head, try to injure the ailing ankle of tight end Vernon Davis (who ironically would score the game-winning touchdown in that game) and, perhaps most unsettling, to go after the ACL of wide receiver Michael Crabtree.
Motivational speeches aren’t rare in the NFL. Defensive players are often spoken to in terms like “attack” and “kill” opposing players. Pat Williams routinely would do his professional wrestler-style power slam on any smaller man who happened to be holding the ball when he got his around him and slammed him to the turf. Other players were applauded for big hits on ESPN’s Monday night “Jacked Up” segment (which was quietly removed from the Monday night coverage last year). The difference? Those were within the rules of the game. Football is a violent sport by its nature. It’s modern-day gladiators fighting in groups. Injuries happen. But they’re not supposed to be intentional or rewarded.
Hearing the words from Williams’ mouth was troubling enough, but even more disconcerting is that they came less than three months ago, as the Saints prepared to play the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs in January. It came after Williams and the Saints organization had already been notified that the NFL was investigating the bounty program and had solid information to lead their investigators to believe that significant wrongdoing had been uncovered already.
It speaks to the arrogance of Williams and the cancerous spread of his personal coaching ideology. Being aware that the NFL was gathering ammunition to take him down, Williams not only repeated many of the allegations that had been leveled upon him, but went even farther – implicitly instructing his players to go after a player’s knee to see if they could intimidate him and, in the process, hurt him. It was sickening.
The Saints are already trying to distance themselves from Williams. Reports have surfaced that Vitt, trying to appeal his own suspension, claimed that Williams was a “rogue coach” who went off on his own. As an assistant head coach who oversaw both the offense and defense, to claim that he had no knowledge of the bounty system is ludicrous. It leaves only three options – Vitt was ignorant to what was going on under his own nose, Vitt is so disengaged from his own job that he allowed his underlings to run roughshod without restrictions or Vitt is lying. That verdict is up to debate.
What seemingly is no longer a question in the minds of anyone who heard the Williams audio was that the coach was single-minded in his approach to coaching players – a mantra that basically called them to be uniformed assassins that could end careers with one well-timed shot.
While punishment has yet to be handed down to the Saints players in this unseemly scandal, it is hoped that the “I was just taking orders” defense won’t be employed by the Saints heading to the gallows for their punishment. It’s been tried before. It rarely (if ever) has worked as a defense strategy.
By not appealing the terms of his suspension, less than a year from now, Williams is eligible to apply for reinstatement to the league. It is up to Goodell whether to grant that application. There wasn’t a consensus of people who agreed with my opinion that Williams should receive a permanent ban from the NFL. Until the Watergate tapes were released, most people didn’t think Nixon should resign. They heard his voice implicating himself after the fact and his fate was then sealed.
Thursday’s release of the audio of Williams has changed public perception of him and, perhaps worse from the business standpoint, brought disgrace to “The Shield.” There is no gray area. There is no room for interpretation. The NFL has hopefully seen the last of Gregg Williams. It wasn’t a witch hunt that brought him down. It was his owns actions … and, as it turned out, his own words.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.