Judging by your comments, some of you are neither surprised nor particularly upset to learn that the New Orleans Saints had a bounty on then-Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game. Over on our Facebook page, for example, Ace wrote: "Wait a second. Does anybody actually care that NFL players are actively trying to hurt each other? I thought that's why we watch the game?"
Fair point. There is absolutely a segment of football fans drawn to the game by its physical brutality. For you, players incentivized to hurt each ultimately enhance the violence and elevate the game to a modern-day gladiator scene, where combatants win by disabling their opponent. If you like that sort of thing, you loved seeing Favre pummeled during that game and should probably remove yourself from this conversation.
The rest of you are wondering why it took the NFL two years to document what seemed painfully obvious (pardon the pun) in the days that followed: Regardless of their motivation or incentive, the Saints seemed determined to batter Favre, inside or outside the rules.
It was clear early on, when defensive end Bobby McCray drilled Favre in the chin after a handoff, and continued through a game that included two personal fouls and a third the NFL later said should have been called. Favre's ankle was heavily bruised after McCray grabbed it as part of a high-low hit in the third quarter, and in all it was one of the most brutal beatings we've seen a veteran quarterback take.
McCray was fined $20,000, and looking back, there were plenty of clues and suspicions circulating that suggested this was more than just a physical game. The Vikings were incensed by the Saints' approach and complained to the league the next day. A few months later, then-coach Brad Childress said: "What I hate to see are late hits or attempts to hurt anybody. I don't think there's a place for that in the game."
Asked if he thought that happened in the NFC Championship Game, Childress said: "Yes, I would have to say that, yes."
It's even worth taking a second look at the Twitter "feud" between then-Saints safety Darren Sharper and Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe in the spring of 2010. What most of us thought was fun self-promotion takes on a different meaning with what we know now. The exchange began when Sharper, noting Favre's subsequent ankle surgery, tweeted: "Well y'all seen Brett had surgery on that ankle we got after in the championship game. Come Thursday night 1st game. X marks the spot."
We even discussed the issue of deliberate attempts to injure that spring. Did anyone know the Saints had a bounty on Favre in that game? Would it have mattered?
To me, not really. Whether there was a bounty or not, the Saints did everything they could to remove Favre from the game. In some cases, what they did violated NFL game rules. We've known that for two years. The only thing that's changed for me is that I no longer blame McCray or any other individual for playing out of control. Clearly, they were acting as part of a larger mentality conceived by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and endorsed, at least tacitly, by coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis.
Not to get all preachy here, but indulge me for a moment. Competition spurs some people to high achievement, but it puts others on a mission to limit the achievement of their opponents. Are you trying to win? Or are you trying to make the other guy lose? It's a subtle difference, and doesn't necessarily correlate to win-loss records, but in the end, the Saints succeeded in making the Vikings worse than them on that day.
Under duress and in pain, Favre threw two interceptions, one of which came after an illegal hit by McCray. The Saints won in part by disabling their opponent. But at what price? The NFL will soon provide an answer to that question.