It is a tragically unforgettable event in New Orleans Saints history. The time when the foundation of a Tom Brady/Bill Belichick-level dynasty was thwarted by allegations of attempts by the Saints coaching staff to circumvent the salary cap by eliciting payments to players for acts of misconduct.
I’m not here to tell you it didn’t happen, or that they weren’t guilty, because it seems they were. However, I also won’t pretend like they were the only team guilty of such wrongdoings, and that they weren’t merely made an example of by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
The NFL's punishment of Bountygate was an arbitrary, hypocritical, joke by Goodell. https://t.co/ChVRk0dUhW— Christopher Dunnells (@ChrisDunnells) May 13, 2020
This claim is supported by the fact that the whistleblower, a disgruntled former Saints employee (who was ON THE SAINTS’ STAFF DURING BOUNTYGATE), was hired by the NFL as director of football administration in 2017, despite not being able to keep a job in New Orleans.
But I digress.
Nonetheless, this was a catastrophic moment in the annals of the franchise’s timeline. The Saints were coming off of a three-year stretch that included a Super Bowl victory, three straight playoff appearances, two NFC South division titles and a tie with the New England Patriots for the most regular season wins in that period, with 37.
The seeds of a dynasty had been planted, with the two most valuable ones being coach and QB. A proven recipe for success.
The future was bright with years of contention ahead. Or so we thought.
Once the sanctions hit, they hit hard:
Two second-round picks forfeited, a maximum league fine of $500,000, full-season suspension for head coach Sean Payton, indefinite suspension for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, six-game suspension for assistant head coach Joe Vitt, full-season suspension for linebacker Jonathan Vilma (later appealed and reduced) and shorter-term suspensions for defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove, defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Scott Fujita (which also were eventually appealed and reduced).
The effect of not having Payton’s presence on the field was evident from the jump. The Saints regressed in nearly every phase of the game.
Their offensive yards per play decreased from 6.7 in 2011 to 6.2 in 2012. The defensive yards per play allowed went from 5.9 to 6.5, which ranked dead last in the league by a wide margin. And penalties per game rose from 5.7 (10th in the league) to 6.5 (21st in the league).
This lack of production was in large part an extension of the fractured culture created by the collateral damage of the sanctions. It seemed like things got back to normal in 2013, when the Saints went 11-5 and won a playoff game, but we all know what happened next.
The core of the defense had been ripped out by the circumstances, and they no longer had the money or infrastructure to retain core players, partially due to a lack of rookie production on cheap deals.
This led to a spiral from 2014-2016, before Payton and the front office were able to hit on a few drafts and rebuild what had been torn down. But they did so in a cleaner, more stable fashion this time around.
What if Cerullo never blew the whistle?
Let’s say Bountygate didn’t happen, and Sean Payton trots out on the field to start the 2012 season. Business as usual. What would things have looked like?
I personally think they’d have been pretty good. With Williams already on his way out of Nola after two seasons in a row with sub-par defensive outings, it would’ve been a fresh start.
The truth is they weren’t that bad, as is. They had a +7 point differential, which was 15th-highest in the league. It also means they simply had some bad breaks to end up 7-9. The Colts had a -30 point differential that year and went 11-5.
The offense basically looked the same on paper, besides replacing Carl Nicks with Ben Grubbs (who played well in his place) and Robert Meachem with Joe Morgan. That doesn’t explain why they dropped from no. 2 in the league in offensive DVOA to no. 9, per Football Outsiders.
The only thing that can explain that is not having your play-caller. Well, that and having to make up for one of the worst defenses ever. The defense was already bad in 2011, ranking 28th in DVOA. But they took it to another level of ineptitude in 2012, with the worst DVOA in the NFL, as well as a league-worst 7.4 yards per pass attempts given up.
This caused Brees and the offense to have to force things night in and night out, and Brees threw the second-highest season interception total of his career, with 19.
Sean Payton also frequently stresses “hidden yardage,” gained and given up on special teams. Well, they went from 12th in special teams DVOA in 2011 to 23rd the next season. Yet another example of Payton’s absence being a huge factor.
I think it’s safe to say New Orleans wouldn’t have started off on the same 0-4 skid coming out of the gate if they didn’t have this whole thing hanging over their head. I am of the belief they would’ve come out with a vengeance after the heartbreak that took place against the 49ers in the playoffs the year before, much like they did in 2019 after the No-Call.
The Week 3 overtime loss to the soon-to-be 2-14 Kansas City Chiefs, in which Jamaal Charles absolutely tore the defense to shreds, could have possibly been prevented if Jon Vilma wasn’t still out fighting appeals for his suspension. And with Payton’s leadership, smarts and competitiveness present, the two one-score losses to Carolina may have turned into a split.
That’s 9-7 right there. And that doesn’t include other losses like the one-point defeat to Green Bay and the inexplicable three-game skid in Weeks 11-13. Maybe they don’t make the playoffs with that record, but it’s nothing to scoff at. And more importantly, it keeps the winning culture alive.
The 2012 season wasn’t even the worst part
It really wasn’t. As bad as that first 7-9 season seemed, they rebounded from it quickly in 2013. The worst part of Bountygate was the long-term effect it had on the franchise, rolling into 2014 and beyond.
If it weren’t for Bountygate, the 2014-2016 period could’ve been spent contending, as opposed to being wasted away with middling seasons, not even getting top-10 picks but consistently missing the playoffs. The absolute worst place to be.
This chapter of mediocrity could have been avoided with shrewder moves in free agency, and once again, two more possible rookie deals on the books if they hadn’t lost the second-rounders.
I can’t stress enough how important those two lost picks were. The 2012 second-rounder could have landed the Saints players like Lavonte David, Casey Hayward, Brandon Brooks, Demario Davis or Trumaine Johnson. In 2013, they could’ve had Tyran Mathieu, Jamie Collins, Le’Veon Bell, D.J. Swearinger, Travis Kelce or Larry Warford.
Obviously, these prospects aren’t listed without some heavy hindsight bias, but if they hit on either of those picks, it could have been huge for their future outlook.
They pick Mathieu or Swearinger, and they probably avoid the hideous Jarius Byrd contract. They grab Hayward or Johnson, and there might never be a Brandon Browner in New Orleans. Instead, they replaced potential positive, cheap play for bad, expensive play.
The trickle-down effect of this, paired with a rotten culture, made its way to the locker room, where the mixture of free agents, young guys and leftover Saints from the Super Bowl team didn’t mesh well. The stigma created by Bountygate just put a certain stench around the organization that was hard to shake.
If there was a more cohesive environment without all the bumps and turns created by Bountygate, maybe guys like Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson develop more smoothly and never leave Nola. Maybe Junior Galette doesn’t go coocoo if he’s brought up in a more stable football environment. And who’s to say things don’t turn out differently with Akiem Hicks, resulting in him being retained and having a long, successful career in south Louisiana?
That’s a large portion of the core of that new and improved fourth-ranked defense in 2013 right there (except for P-Rob). And they were all gone by 2015.
If the slate had stayed clean, maybe even Jimmy Graham stays in the Big Easy, and the Saints never select Stephone Anthony with the first-rounder they got for him. And yeah, Unger was a nice addition in that trade, but you can find a center anywhere.
Give me the one-of-a-kind mismatch at tight end any day, even if he’s on a wide receiver contract.
These are the types of situations that could have possibly been avoided by the slow and painful-to-watch avalanche of misfortune that crashed down on the franchise for three years because of friggin’ Bountygate.
I’m not sure if this hypothetical roster that better utilizes the young talent assembled and retains its quality veterans wins another Lombardi trophy or not, but you damn sure could make that argument. It’s hard to argue a Saints team with Brees and a talented defense wouldn’t have at least been in the thick of things with the ‘14 Seahawks, the ‘15 Panthers and the ‘16 Falcons to potentially win the NFC.
Maybe that just provides us with a couple more gut-wrenching playoff losses in those seasons, but at least they would’ve been competitive. And that’s all Saints fans want—a chance at another ring.
Yes, the Saints have rebounded quite nicely from the pit of hopelessness those 7-9 seasons created, but the baggage from Bountygate will stick with Sean Payton and numerous Saints players for the rest of their careers.
Legacies took hits. Jobs were lost. Shame was cast among an organization.
It’d be nice to forget altogether, but with all that occurred, you can’t help but stop and think, “What if...?”
What do you think would have happened if not for Bountygate? Let us know in the comments. Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC, “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @andy_b_123.