We've all had time to digest the Saints scandal surrounding their bounty program. I started out at the level of utter disgust. I am mostly still there, but I suppose I could be described as having softened a little. The Saints will be punished as they should be. But as I was thinking about this story, I couldn't help drawing some comparisons to the last major coaching/management scandal in the NFL: Spygate. I would suspect that many of you have reached the quick conclusion that the Saints bounty program is worse than the Patriots Spygate. It's a fairly easy case to make. After all, the Saints were trying to hurt opposing players. How could that possibly compare to a little video taping? Well, I will attempt to make the case that Spygate is worse.
Now, before I get started, I want to be clear about the terms of this comparison. I am not judging these two violations of NFL rules by standards of ethics or morals. I am strictly measuring them within the realm of NFL football competition.
First, let's examine the bounty program. Cash incentive for a player who knocks an opposing (important) player out of the game with a 50% increase if the player is carted off the field. There is no way to sugar-coat it, this is bad. The base incentive for a garden variety injury would be bad enough, but the increase for what would appear to be a worse injury makes this system even more damnable in my eyes.
So, how do we process this? The way I look at it, NFL coaches are, and must be, in the motivation business. Fans sometimes have a hard time understanding this fact. Why do players who make millions of dollars to play a game and who should be self-motivated to play 1000% in pursuit of a championship need any extra push? It's a fair question, and I would only say who knows, but many of them do. Coaches are always trying to figure out new and creative ways to motivate players. At its core, this scandal is about a coach cooking up a motivation scheme that goes too far. But, it's really not as far over the line as it first appeared to me.
I am not fully versed in NFL rules related to this scandal, but I can't imagine there would be a problem with a program that paid players for hard, legal hits without any qualification regarding the outcome of the hit. I would be surprised if most teams did not already have something similar already in place. Really, the problem with this program is that it paid specifically for injuries. And, I assume it paid even if the action that resulted in the injury was deemed illegal. But, the question that needs to be answered for the purpose of my comparison is what impact did it have on NFL competition? I would say little to none.
No matter what a player's intention, on the spectrum of "safety first" at one end all the way to "kill the guy" on the other, he still must walk the tightrope of NFL rules on legal hits. So, let's assume that the Saints roster is filled with guys who are motivated by the bounty program to push the envelope of legal hits, tackles, etc. Well, in my mind it should all get sorted out on the field. If the players are going over the line, then the Saints should suffer penalties as a result. If they don't, then that should stir up the officiating debate. If they do, then it would seem to me that the Saints could very well have been more hurt than helped by their overly aggressive play. In the end, the bounty program was wrong and bad, but in my mind that does not translate into concluding that the Saints did anything wrong on the field or that it gave them a competitive advantage.
Now, let's talk a little Spygate. I will be brief, because this story has been written about and argued about to death. I will try to stick to the facts. The Patriots did what they were accused of doing. They did it for the sole intention of gaining a competitive advantage on the field. I don't know if there is any concrete evidence that it worked, but it seems to me that it probably did. It is clear in my mind that any knowledge of what the other team is going to do before they do it makes for a pretty solid advantage. It certainly calls into question the brilliance of Belichick's famous in-game "adjustments."
When Spygate broke, the world found out that the Patriots are cheaters. All we learned from "Scrutiny on the Bounty"* is that the Saints are not so saintly. It's a big deal, but I can't see how it won them any games.
(* - I borrowed the term "Scrutiny on the Bounty" from Eric Thompson over at SB Nation Minnesota, and in his post he credited Deadspin)