Tom Benson's biggest challenge

I just finished reading through the very lengthy and detailed release the NFL sent out to announce the penalties imposed on the New Orleans Saints for their bounty program.

My initial reaction?

The penalties are extremely severe and pretty much unprecedented in the NFL. Head coach Sean Payton has been suspended for a year. General manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games of the 2012 season, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt will be suspended for the first six games. The Saints also lost second-round draft picks for this year and next year.

But I can’t say I’m surprised or that the penalties are unfair.

This is Roger Goodell’s NFL, and that’s the bottom line in what will go down as one of the biggest scandals in NFL history. In his tenure as commissioner, Goodell has made lots of noise about the importance of player safety. He made his loudest noise ever Wednesday when he handed down the discipline for the Saints (as well as suspending former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely). Maybe a bounty program 20 or 30 years ago wouldn’t have been a big deal. But this isn’t the NFL of 20 or 30 years ago.

It’s obvious that the league wanted to make a statement on this one. The NFL has a very smart and seasoned public relations department. If the commissioner and his top assistants wanted this one to get lost in the shuffle, they had their chance. They could have announced it late last week when the NCAA tournament was cranking up. Or they could have done it Monday or Tuesday when Peyton Manning was dominating the headlines.

But Goodell and the NFL waited until Wednesday, and that puts the Saints firmly on center stage. Goodell’s comments in the release were about as strong as you’ll see from a league that usually goes out of its way to portray everything as rosy.

“Beyond the clear and continuing violations of league rules, and lying to investigators, the bounty program is squarely contrary to the league’s most important initiatives -- enhancing player health and safety and protecting the integrity of the game,” Goodell said. “Let me be clear. There is no place in the NFL for deliberately seeking to injure another player, let alone offering a reward for doing so. Any form of bounty is incompatible with our commitment to create a culture of sportsmanship, fairness and safety. Programs of this kind have no place in our game, and we are determined that bounties will no longer be a part of the NFL.”

Goodell also was sending a strong message to the other 31 teams. But he made an example out of the Saints. That’s mainly because the Saints set themselves up to become an example.

According to the league, Payton and Loomis were aware that a bounty program existed and rewarded defensive players for injuring opponents. The report even details some specific targets of bounties -- Brett Favre, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, and Kurt Warner. The league says Payton and Loomis did nothing to stop the bounties that went on for three seasons and the coach lied to league investigators and instructed his assistants to do the same.

There’s one particular item in the announcement that gives some in-depth insight into how the Saints were operating.

“Coach Vitt said one of his primary roles was to monitor the activity of Coach Williams,’’ the report says. “This was based on the direction of Coach Payton, who apparently had less than full confidence in Coach Williams. Despite Coach Vitt’s knowledge of the bounty program, his understanding of the terms 'knock-out' and 'cart-off,' his witnessing Coach Williams handing out envelopes that he believed to contain cash, and his acknowledgement that the defensive meeting preceding the 2010 NFC Championship Game may have 'got out of hand' with respect to Brett Favre."

Wow, the league is even peeling off the cover of what wasn’t exactly a well-kept secret around the NFL. Payton hired Williams in 2009 because he needed to make his defense better. It was pretty well known that Payton made the move despite the fact he and Williams weren’t the best of friends. But they coexisted for three seasons and won a Super Bowl in their first year together.

Does the Super Bowl make all this worthwhile?

I’m not so sure. The Saints have a real mess on their hands. You could say Payton should have stayed true to himself and never hired Williams, who the league says was the mastermind of the whole bounty program. But it’s kind of useless to waste time on hindsight.

The Saints have to move forward, and that’s not going to be easy. In addition to the actions already announced, the Saints likely will have multiple defensive players suspended for part of the 2012 season.

Goodell has put the Saints in their place for messing with the integrity of the game. He also has sent a message to them (and to other teams) that he really is the boss.

But the Saints are suddenly left without the guys who’ve been running the show since 2006. Payton’s suspension begins April 1, and Loomis isn’t going to be allowed to be involved with the team until midway through next season. Owner Tom Benson was not implicated for doing anything wrong by the league.

Benson suddenly faces a huge challenge. He’s got to decide if he’s going to fill Payton’s spot with one of the assistants currently on staff or look outside for a head coach. (Where do you find a head coach at this time of year?) Benson also has to decide who’s going to make personnel decisions in Loomis’ absence.

Benson’s reputation in New Orleans has improved quite a bit in recent years. Agreeing to keep the team in New Orleans for the long term and winning a Super Bowl will do that for you. The Saints are more popular and beloved than they’ve ever been.

It’s up to Benson to find a way to keep them there. He can start by making sure quarterback Drew Brees, who saved a city and a franchise once, gets signed to a long-term contract very soon. Brees may have to do it all over again. But it's up to Benson to finish the job by putting good people in the places of Payton and Loomis.

Most importantly, it's up to Benson to make sure his entire organization plays by Goodell’s rules.