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Saints’ bounty program reveals NFL’s neanderthal ways

The Saints' bounty program likely targeted top players such as Packers quarterback AarRodgers. | AP

The Saints' bounty program likely targeted top players such as Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. | AP

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Updated: March 5, 2012 4:54PM

Bears wide receiver Earl Bennett probably was just collateral damage in the ‘‘bounty program’’ Gregg Williams orchestrated when he was the defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints. The bounties probably were saved for bigger game like Aaron Rodgers and Steve Smith.

Bennett missed five games after suffering what the Bears termed a ‘‘bruised chest’’ when hard-hitting Saints safety Roman Harper drilled his helmet into Bennett’s chest to tackle Bennett after a nine-yard gain in the first quarter of the Bears’ 30-13 loss to the Saints on Sept. 18 at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Williams acknowledgement of the bounty program came after an NFL investigation revealed Williams not only initiated the bounties, but the Saints refused to abolish the practice when owner Tom Benson ordered it stopped. ‘‘It was a terrible mistake and we knew we were wrong while we were doing it,’’ Williams, now the defensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams, said in a statement.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is contemplating the punishment for the Saints. It will be interesting to see if Williams also is disciplined even though he’ s on a different team. Regardless, this is no small incident. This isn’t ‘‘Spygate.’’ It’s an indictment of a coaching mentality that adds fuel to the NFL debate regarding concussions and the long-term affects of football brutality in an era when players are not only bigger than ever, but faster than ever, too.

Because — bounty program or not — the mentality that guys like Williams bring to the game have helped create the problem the NFL only now is recognizing.

It’s more than just aggression or intimidation — that’s been inherent to the game as long as it’s existed. But there’s a big difference between crossing the line because of an ‘‘aggressive mistake’’ and recklessly disregarding where the line even exists, which is how the Saints have unapologetically played under Williams.

He endorses late hits on quarterbacks, calling them ‘‘remember me’’ shots that will pay off later in the game or somewhere down the road. And he tacitly, if not overtly encourages dirty play by absolving his players of personal foul penalties, many of which result in fines.

‘‘We’re going to live on the edge and get after the quarterback and we’re not going to change,’’ Williams said after Saints defensive players were called for a personal foul, roughing the passer and taunting in a victory over the Carolina Panthers — including a blatant cheap shot by Harper after Steve Smith scored on a 54-yard touchdown pass. ‘‘We’re going to go down swinging.’’

Harper was fined $15,000 for the hit on Smith. He also was fined $22,500 for two separate incidents against the Tennessee Titans. The latter one was typical Harper — he ‘‘tackled’’ Titans receiver Damian Williams by pulling him down by the face mask and helmet after a 54-yard gain. It was a blatantly illegal play. But one the Saints were proud of.

‘‘I love Roman Harper,’’ Gregg Williams said regarding Harper’s takedown of Damian Williams. ‘‘That’s just too bad on their part. If that guy don’t want his head tore off, then duck — because that’s how we’re playing.’’

This is the kind of neanderthal thinking that has created a problem for the NFL that is going to get worse before it gets better — as more Dave Duersons die at 50 from the effects of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and other forms of concussion-related dementia — because coaches like Gregg Williams tolerate their players tackling with a head to the chest instead of ‘‘wrapping up’’ like every 10-year-old is taught in youth leagues.

(For what it’s worth, the great Dick Butkus earned his reputation as an intimidating, dirty player. But watch any film on him — he was a textbook tackler who played the game with his mind, brought down ball carriers with his hands and arms and intimidated by being Dick Butkus.)

Unfortunately, Gregg Williams’ means of intimidating is accepted as an integral part of winning football because the Saints won a Super Bowl with his tactics. It’s long forgotten that the Saints were fined $30,000 for four incidents in their NFC Championship Game victory over the Vikings in 2010. Three of them were for hits on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. Asked if he thought the Saints were intentionally trying to injure Favre, Vikings coach Brad Childress said, ‘‘Yes, I would have to say that.’’

But intimidation only carried Williams and the Saints so far since the Super Bowl. The fact of the matter is that the Saints lost prematurely in the postseason the last two years because their defense couldn’t stop anybody. The Saints allowed 41 points and 425 yards to a sub-.500 Seahawks team in the 2010 playoffs. Last season, Williams’ defense allowed 28 points and 412 yards in a victory over the Lions, then collapsed against the 49ers — allowing 36 points and 407 yards to a 49ers offense that ranked 26th in the NFL in total yards.

And Williams was the culprit, failing to double cover the only receiver who could beat him — tight end Vernon Davis. After Davis had burned Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins for a 37-yard reception to set up a go-ahead touchdown with 2:11 to go, Williams left Jenkins in single coverage against Davis after the Saints had rallied to take the lead — and Jenkins was beaten for a 47-yard gain that set up the winning touchdown.

Williams left the Saints to join his good friend Jeff Fisher with the Rams — perhaps jumping before he was pushed. ‘‘Bounty-gate’’ notwithstanding, he’s likely to remain the same blitz-happy, risk-taking defensive coordinator who believes the biggest part of defense is intimidation and doing whatever it takes to show how tough you are. Now long before he regrets that philosophy? Sadly, we may soon find out.

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