Don't blame Goodell for scandal

Now that the tweets are flying, the lawyers are gloating and the New Orleans Saints players are celebrating, let's not forget something critical in this entire bounty scandal. The Saints still lost their season. They could've been in the thick of the playoff hunt right now, with their fourth straight 10-win season well within sights. Instead, they're 5-8 and hoping to maintain some respectability as the regular season winds down. For that plight they should be blaming one man ... and his name is not Roger Goodell.

As much as this bounty story has revolved around the NFL commissioner and the four Saints players who finally saw their suspensions overturned on Tuesday -- when former commissioner Paul Tagliabue ruled to wipe out the punishments -- it's always been about assigning blame. Goodell has been the easy villain throughout, the man who supposedly was unwilling to back down in his vendetta against Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams also has taken his share of heat for being the point man in this travesty.

But someone in particular has too easily been lost in the wreckage. He is the person we should be talking about now that this story finally seems close to conclusion.

Sean Payton.

It was Payton who had the power to shut the bounty program down when Goodell first informed Saints owner Tom Benson of the scandal. Payton also was the man who conspired with team general manager Mickey Loomis to keep the program going and to ensure that everybody had their stories straight when lying to league officials about the matter. All those Saints fans bemoaning their team's persecution need to remember how all this started. It began with a coach whose very arrogance wouldn't allow him to do the right thing when he had the opportunity.

You can argue that Goodell went too far in trying to suspend players without proper evidence. What can't be debated is that the bounty program did, in fact, exist. The fact that Payton would put his team in such a compromising position for something that created no discernible advantage makes little sense. The way he operated once this story broke also gave us plenty of insights into his mindset.

The doubts should've arisen the minute Payton started publicly suggesting the possibility of Bill Parcells coaching the team while Payton served a one-year suspension. As cool as that sounded on the surface, it also suggested something far more self-serving. Payton wasn't thinking of sticking it to the league by having a legendary coach take his spot on the sidelines. He was preserving his own legacy by wooing a mentor who would exit stage left upon his return.

Payton wasn't just facing the punishment handed down by Goodell. He also faced the possibility that the Saints actually could win games without his well-publicized "genius." After all, Payton is credited for energizing that franchise with his arrival in 2006 and his Super Bowl win during the 2009 season. There's no way anybody would think he didn't have the team's best interests at heart.

Still, if Payton really cared about how his team fared in his absence, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer wouldn't have been running the Saints when the season began. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael had been with the organization since 2006, while defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo actually had been a head coach in St. Louis during the previous three seasons. They could've held the fort until assistant head coach Joe Vitt -- who was serving a six-game suspension -- returned to fill the interim role.

Instead, the Saints opened the season with four losses, all by eight points or fewer. If New Orleans had won half those games, it would be 7-6 today. If the Saints had won three, they'd be in an advantageous position in the wild-card hunt. By losing all four, they reaffirmed what people already felt about Payton, who joined Loomis and Benson in selecting the interim coaches. The Saints couldn't contend without Payton's brilliance.

For those who think this is a reach, that an assistant like Spagnuolo couldn't have handled that job in his first season with the franchise, just consider the Indianapolis Colts. Their interim coach, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, has been running that team ever since head coach Chuck Pagano started treatments for leukemia three weeks into this season. Arians -- who was in Pittsburgh last season -- had to train a first-year quarterback in Andrew Luck. He had to lead a team filled with young players. Somehow he has managed to guide the Colts to a 9-4 record and legitimate playoff contention.

Payton really deserves credit for only one thing: Not prolonging his role in this scandal longer than necessary. It's easy to understand why the players fought so hard; there wasn't enough proof for them to suffer as Goodell saw fit. Meanwhile, Payton went through his appeals process and quietly took his beating once that attempt went nowhere. He spoke briefly at the NFL owners meetings in March before essentially going silent for the remainder of the year.

Ironically, it would've been nice if Payton had told us more about all this nonsense. He left his players to defend themselves among accusations that had everything to do with his own admissions to Goodell. He left a championship-caliber team searching for leadership and stability amid constant distractions. Above all else, Payton started all the problems by failing to see the damage that eventually resulted from all his hubris.

So as we wonder what's left to discuss in this story -- and really all that remains is for Vilma to decide whether to continue his defamation lawsuit against Goodell -- let's not forgot why this entire scandal happened in the first place. It happened because pro football players got carried away with a practice that has occurred for years all over the league. It happened because Goodell decided to make the Saints pay for their transgressions in unprecedented fashion. More than anything, it happened because of something that shouldn't be forgotten now. It happened because Sean Payton was the head coach of the New Orleans Saints.