It's been a crazy week in the National Football League. The combine is over, draft talk is heating up, franchise tags have been handed out, teams have started re-signing their own players, and some cuts have gone down. A crazy week... and then the pay for pain story broke. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, then of the New Orleans Saints, was caught with an elaborate bounty system in place for his players. The maliciousness that the plan allegedly entailed caused some stomachs to turn and prompted some players to plot their revenge. It's an ugly picture that will only get worse.
Former NFL player detailed his involvement playing under Williams and in my opinion he was just telling it like it was. Others claimed he was justifying the bounty system. In fact the term justify was thrown around a lot the last few days by fans and the media when any player spoke up on the subject. The players aren't justifying it, they're just stating facts. It happens all around the league, maybe not as elaborate and viscous as whet went on in New Orleans, but it's nothing new to the game of football. The casual fan hears about this and they are taken aback, whereas for someone that has been around similar reward programs it's business as usual. That doesn't make it right, but it's in the culture.
Football players have been taught since the first day they put on equipment that a big hit would bring them a reward. Early on it's just the ohs and ahs of their teammates and coaches or the cheers of their parents, but they quickly realize they can garner some recognition from making a big stick. I've coached youth football, and I've applauded my kids for making a hard hit. Hits that echo across the field and cause the crowd to gasp. Hits that cause teammates to high five and hug each other and hits that sometimes injure. We obviously don't know the outcome of the hit, but we cheer right up until the player is prone on the field. It's a violent game at every level.
As they move on to high school it's in the form of decals to mark their achievements. Score a TD; sticker. Interception; sticker. Fumble recovery; sticker. Make a jolting block or tackle; sticker. I've had coaches offer up steak dinners for any defensive touchdown. I've had teammates talk about taking out the rival star player, and I was included in those discussions.
College ball has the helmet stickers too, but the players are bigger, stronger, and faster. Collisions are more violent, with the chance of injury increased. And who knows what goes on behind the scenes with some of the boosters; Pay to play or pay for pain? I've seen players with actual hit lists written on towels so they'd not forget who to take out. Scouting reports are handed out and game plans made around stopping one or two key players. If #34 has the ability to shred a defense, then all week leading up to the game the focus is on #34. Find #34 and hit him, hit him, and hit him again. If he's held up by a defender, hit him. Punish him every chance you get.
I've never been on a team that asked us to cross the line, and as a coach I've never taught a player to cross the line. But doing everything up to that line, in my opinion, is what good hard nosed football is. I've told my players that if a receiver catches the ball over the middle he has to be leveled. Cleanly. No headhunting, no spearing, but a hard legal hit, so that the WR will remember the feeling associated with his catch. I teach my offensive linemen to drive a defender until the whistle and if he can, to pancake him into the field. I want my defensive linemen to attack the quarterback full speed. If they let up in the slightest, a heady QB will slip the tackle and scramble away. If a QB has his arm in the throwing motion, you can't risk pulling up otherwise he may pump fake and run. It's a fine line.
The outrage over the bounty system that Gregg Williams and his players used is warranted. He may not have specifically asked his players to cross the line (or he may have), but a monetary reward for injuring a player implied it. That's not to say that the majority of defensive players aren't already trying to injury whom ever they hit or tackle, because whether you want to believe it or not, they are. Asking a person to run full speed and drive through someone while taking them to the ground is painful and players get hurt. A few defensive players talking about knocking the QB out is one thing, but having a locker room wide incentive system detailing the cash amount paid for such action is another. I think it's disgusting.
Bears fans cheered Dick Butkus for his intense style of play. The famed 46 Defense of the 1985 Bears regularly took players out. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan was known to reward his players for nasty hits and he took that bounty mentality throughout his entire coaching career. A career that crossed paths with a young Gregg Williams in Houston.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will bring the hammer down hard on Williams and the Saints. After further investigation the Redskins may get hit as well. The incentive system in some form has been around as long as football has been played, and I don't think it will stop entirely. Players will be more cognizant of what they do from now on, and maybe even eliminate the dirty "bounty" aspect of eliminating players.
The game is changing. Player safety is a hot topic, and as there is more understanding of what the violent collisions are doing, the culture of football may change. I would never ask a player of mine to purposely hurt an opposing player, but technically speaking, isn't that what I was doing? Isn't that what every coach is asking his players to do? Go 100% and leave it all out there on the field... There's no way around it, the sport of football is violent at every level.