Report: Owner backs Saints coach, GM

NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson isn't backing off his support of his general manager and coach, even as his team is accused by the NFL of maintaining a bounty program to injure opponents.

While Benson cooperates with NFL officials in their investigation of the bounty program that spanned the last three seasons, he is standing behind general manager Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton -- even though the league says they knew about the bounties.

"The bond between Sean and Mickey and Mr. Benson could not be stronger," a team official told The Associated Press on Monday on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still ongoing. "(Benson) is 110 percent behind his guys."

The NFL investigation found between 22 and 27 defensive players on the Saints, as well as former assistant coach Gregg Williams, maintained a bounty system for inflicting injuries on targeted players.

Former defensive coordinator Williams has admitted to running the pool, and the NFL's investigation concluded that Loomis and Payton did nothing to prevent it, even after Benson was alerted of the pool by the NFL last year and asked Loomis to put a stop to it.

"The team completely understands the ramifications, is taking the matter very seriously and has cooperated fully with the league," said the Saints official. "Mr. Benson is in constant contact with (commissioner) Roger Goodell and his office, yet he remains steadfast in his support of Mickey and Sean, and his focus is on the upcoming free agency, making the team better and hosting the Super Bowl. ... We have a lot of positive things on our plate that we have to get working on."

Williams met with NFL security officials Jeff Miller and Joe Hummel on Monday for another round of dialogue pertaining to the alleged bounty violations.

Goodell did not attend the meeting.

Williams now is defensive coordinator in St. Louis. He also held that position in Tennessee, Washington and Jacksonville. He was head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2001 to 2003.

Rams general manager Les Snead told Pro Football Talk on Tuesday that the team would decline comment until the league released their final ruling.

The NFL's report said the Saints maintained a bounty pool of up to $50,000 the last three seasons. Payoffs were made for inflicting game-ending injuries on targeted players, including quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. "Knockouts," in which a player was knocked out of the game, were worth $1,500 and "cart-offs," in which players had to be helped off the field, were worth $1,000. Payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs.

Williams called his role in the pool a "terrible mistake" when he issued a public apology late last week.

No punishments have been handed out, but they could include suspension, fines and loss of draft picks.

Next season's Super Bowl is scheduled for New Orleans, and the Saints hope to be a contender coming off a 13-win 2011 season that ended with a dramatic loss in the final seconds of a divisional-round playoff game at San Francisco. Yet, the Saints could potentially find themselves playing some games without several key returning defensive players such as linebacker Jonathan Vilma and strong safety Roman Harper -- if they are found to have participated in the pool.

In Week 14 against Tennessee last season, Harper made two hits that drew a total of $22,500 in fines.

Harper was fined $15,000 for roughing the passer on a helmet-to-helmet hit, and another $7,500 for unnecessary roughness when he pulled down receiver Damian Williams by his helmet after a long catch and run. The tackle likely stopped Williams from scoring, and Gregg Williams defended Harper's aggressiveness on that play after the game.

Harper has not responded to phone messages from The Associated Press, but former Saints defensive end Alex Brown and safety Darren Sharper defended their former defensive coordinator in separate radio interviews Monday.

Brown, in an interview with "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000 in Chicago, said knocking players out of games doesn't mean illegal tactics were used.

"You can knock a guy out of the game and do it legally. Just because you knock a guy out of the game doesn't mean it's an illegal thing. Just because a guy gets hurt that doesn't mean it's illegal. It is football," Brown said.

Sharper, in an interview with 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia, said characterizations "that we were trying to maim guys or try to cart a guy off is just totally ridiculous."

He also said Payton had no knowledge of the incentive program.

"I don't think Coach Payton had anything or didn't know anything about that. Coach Payton didn't have any idea what we were doing," Sharper said.

Loomis and Payton also have not commented on the probe.

Since the report was released on Friday, multiple media outlets have reported similar systems in Williams' past stops with the Redskins and Bills, with former defensive players confirming anonymous sourcing.

Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston became the latest player to confirm payments, but denied they were for malicious intent.

Golston told The Associated Press on Monday that Williams would reward players for a "sack or an interception" or "a pivotal play." But Golston also said: "I've never seen a player get any money for hurting anybody."

Williams was the Redskins' defensive coordinator from 2004 to '07.

Longtime Williams assistant Steve Jackson says he doesn't remember any bounties, either, but he said players would offer their own incentives for big plays -- such as $500 for a tackle inside the 20.

All payouts for specific performances in a game, including interceptions or causing fumbles, are against NFL rules. The NFL also warns teams against such practices before each season.

The NFL said its findings in its probe of the Saints were corroborated by multiple, independent sources, and the pool amounts peaked in 2009, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.