Roger Goodell showing Saints mercy

Since he took over as NFL commissioner in 2006, Roger Goodell has been so consistent that he’s become predictable.

Cross the line on anything that involves player safety or his precious “integrity of the game’’ and you’re going to pay a steep price. Mess with anything that jeopardizes “the NFL shield’’ Goodell loves to talk about and you’re going to feel his wrath.

Oh, and be sure never to lie to the commissioner because that’s only going to make matters worse.

Any or all of the above have brought suspensions or hefty fines in Goodell’s era. Think Michael Vick, Donte' Stallworth and Plaxico Burress, to name a few.

Now, it seems like Goodell’s becoming even more of a moral stickler. The punishments for the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program are severe and unprecedented. Goodell has suspended coach Sean Payton for a year, general manager Mickey Loomis for the first eight games of the 2012 season, assistant head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games and banned former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely. He has also hit the Saints with a $500,000 fine and taken away their second-round draft picks for 2012 and 2013. The league also has said 22 to 27 players were involved and discipline for them will come soon.

No question this is severe, but has Goodell really intentionally destroyed the franchise, like so many New Orleans fans seem to think? No, he hasn’t and anyone that thinks that simply is shooting the messenger -- the guy who had the nerve to tell them that their beloved head coach and team weren’t quite as perfect as they had been made out to be.

If you really think about it, Goodell is just doing what New Orleans owner Tom Benson should have, but didn’t. Shouldn’t Benson have been the one to suspend or fire people once he found out his team was out of control? Or shouldn’t Benson have been the one who stepped in and stopped things before they got totally out of hand? After all, there were lots of warning signs and warnings from the league.

But they went unheeded by the Saints, who turned around and lied to Goodell. Lots of people are saying that the lies are the main reason Goodell is burying the Saints. Yeah, there’s no doubt the lies added to the severity of the punishments. But I disagree with anyone who says Goodell has crushed the Saints.

If he really wanted a franchise that’s been among the league’s most successful since 2006 to fade back into the type of mediocrity and obscurity that came with most of its earlier history, Goodell could have barred the door and sealed it up tight. Instead, he’s left more than enough cracks to help allow the Saints to still be very competitive in 2012.

He has left it possible for them to perhaps get one of the best coaches in NFL history in Bill Parcells. No deal is done yet and it’s even possible the Saints could be talking to another former head coach or two. Stick Parcells or some other currently unemployed coach out there with quarterback Drew Brees and an offensive system that coordinator Pete Carmichael knows as well as Payton and the Saints aren’t going to fall straight to the bottom of the NFC South. Yeah, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is going to face some major challenges, especially if multiple defensive players have to serve suspensions, but he would have faced some of those even if none of this happened. No matter how things shake out with the head-coaching spot, the Saints are going to be competitive.

Goodell didn’t have to allow that, but he did. If Goodell really wanted to make life impossible for the Saints, he would have made Payton’s suspension take hold immediately and not let Loomis continue to manage all the offseason moves when he announced the penalties last week.

Instead, Goodell made April 1 the date Payton’s suspension starts (it’s possible that date could be pushed back if Payton decides to appeal) and Loomis’ suspension doesn’t start until right before the opening game of the regular season. Loomis can keep on signing free agents, oversee a draft in which the Saints don’t have a lot of picks and sign those rookies.

Loomis also can sign more players if he finds out some of his own will miss time because of suspensions and he can make roster tweaks all through training camp and the preseason as injuries pile up. Most importantly of all, Loomis has time to work out a long-term contract with Brees, who is carrying the franchise tag for now and will have to carry the franchise through the season.

I also find it more than a little curious that Goodell has left enough time and wiggle room for Payton and Loomis, the two men in the center of the controversy (along with Williams), to appear to be the ones making the decision on the coaching situation. Goodell keeps saying that decision is ultimately up to Benson and there might be a few grains of truth in that because the owner is the one who will pay the new coach.

But Benson’s not the one who’s really running this show or putting in a plan for the season. With Goodell’s blessing, Benson is catching a huge break. Benson never has fancied himself a football guy or been a hands-on owner. Before hiring Payton in 2006, the last good football move Benson made was putting his team into the hands of coach Jim Mora and general manager Jim Finks back in the 1980s. Oh, and you could state pretty accurately that Benson didn’t really hire Payton. Loomis was the one who ran the coaching search and Benson simply signed off on what Loomis wanted.

Since then, Benson has left the franchise exclusively in the hands of his “football guys’’ -- Payton and Loomis. That brought a Super Bowl championship and a lot of victories. It also brought a lot of shame.

But when reports surfaced that Loomis and Payton were meeting with Parcells earlier this week, it become obvious that this franchise is still being run by the “football guys.’’ All indications are Payton and Loomis will put Parcells or someone else in front of Benson and he’ll sign off on whatever they recommend. Anybody out there think that if Payton and Loomis weren’t allowed to handle this that Benson, a true non-football guy, could go out and get Parcells or any coach close to that level on his own? I don’t.

There’s more than a little irony in all this. In the scorching report that announced the Saints’ punishments and thoroughly detailed their violations, one of the things Goodell criticized Payton for was telling his assistants to “get their ducks in a row’’ as they attempted to cover up the bounty program.

That, no doubt, played a role in how harsh the punishments were. But the funny thing here is that Goodell now has allowed Payton and Loomis time to get their ducks (or their Parcellses) lined up. That’s not part of the punishment.

That’s what I would call showing the Saints some mercy.