The story of the 2009 New Orleans Saints is one of the best in NFL history. That’s always the case when a season concludes in a shower of confetti. But the Saints’ Super Bowl XLIV victory felt particularly special. A neo-passionate and and long-suffering fan base had finally been rewarded for its steadfast commitment to a team that represented a city that had battled back from lows that most metropolises couldn’t fathom reaching.
There was the obvious Hurricane Katrina story line. There was that adorable yet iconic image of Drew Brees and his infant son Baylen in blissful celebration. There was so much to get behind. They were the NFC’s best team after winning 13 regular-season games, but the Saints still managed to feel like David, not Goliath. If you didn’t have a horse in the Super Bowl XLIV race, you were behind New Orleans.
But it turns out there were skeletons in that closet. More than just one.
Less than three months after they captured Lombardi, it was revealed that coaches Sean Payton and Joe Vitt were embroiled in a scandal that claimed they were stealing prescription drugs from the team facility. Controversial? Yes. Enough to overshadow or even put a damper on a championship season? Not really.
But skeleton No. 2 will carry much larger implications. Skeleton No. 2 is being compared to Spygate, which saw the New England Patriots forfeit a first-round draft pick in 2008 as punishment for videotaping the signals of opposing coaches during a game against the Jets.
Skeleton No. 2 will now forever be linked to the ’09 Saints in the same way that Spygate has stuck to Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Following an extensive investigation, the NFL has concluded that in that Super Bowl year, and in the two years to follow, members of the Saints defense — in fact, the majority of the unit — were given financial incentive to inflict injuries on opposing players. Coincidentally or not, that defense helped bring an end to Kurt Warner’s career.
Inevitably now, we’ll hear from the old-schoolers who will defend the shenanigans. Montages and rah-rah speeches from sports films and TV shows across the board have taught us that, in inherently violent sports, the primary objective — aside from, you know, winning — is to weaken, cripple or maim your opponent. It’s not always as overwhelmingly blunt as Lisa Simpson made it — “Jimbo, Jimbo, go for the face! Ralph Wiggum lost his shin guard! Hack the bone! Hack the bone!” — but it’s ubiquitous in pop culture.
The difference, of course, is that this isn’t pop culture. Oh, and Jimbo Jones wasn’t taking home a paycheck for the damage done to his opponent’s mug.
And that’s why we’ll hear, just as inevitably, from the Helen Lovejoy crowd — those who dread the poor example being set by supposed role models. Not everyone on this side of the debate is naive enough to purchase the idea that the New Orleans defense was a lone gunman. This has been done before — it’s embedded in sports like these. We get the odd morsel of evidence that bones and joints are being targeted, as we did when two Giants special-teamers haphazardly confessed to exploiting an opponent’s concussion history during the 2011 postseason. But all previous cases have been nothing more than misdemeanors in the eyes of the league.
This is their open-and-shut murder trial, complete with an apparent money trail.
That’s why there’s an army of chivalric fans excited to see what kind of example the league office makes out of the Saints. Can you blame them?
In the NFL, defensive players are paid handsomely to hit offensive players as hard as they possibly can. They’re compensated directly for making stops, but realists know that they’re compensated indirectly for capitalizing on vulnerabilities and, collaterally or not, rendering opposing players powerless by removing them from the field of play.
The difference here is that the Saints talked about it, sweetened the financial pot, and — this is the most important factor — got caught.
As a result, they’ll likely lose draft picks and swallow fines and — this is the most important consequence — the most memorable and successful stretch in franchise history will forever possess a publicly-generated yet inescapable asterisk.