Player reaction to the bounties Gregg Williams placed on heads around the NFL has been flowing since Friday afternoon when the story first broke.

By now you know about Matt Bowen’s defense of his former coach, and Coy Wire’s details about a similar system in Buffalo when Williams was the head coach there between 2001 and 2003, one in which players were handed their bounty money in front of the team following a game. While troubling, the descriptions of Williams’ conduct given by Wire and Bowen come from a different era. That’s difficult to grasp since Williams was in Washington only five years ago, and the designated time allotted for an era seems like it should be much longer than five years.

But over the past two seasons to either the delight or chagrin of fans, the NFL has transitioned from being a bruising festival of brutality, to a league with far more controlled chaos. Some, most notably James Harrison, have struggled with that transition, which is expected. Years of knocking the snot out of each other doesn’t evaporate instantly.

What’s odd and confusing, though, is that the reactions by some of the most veteran or recently retired players to the conduct of Williams is the verbal equivalent of a shoulder shrug. They understand, as we all do, that football is an extremely violent game, and a crippling, career-changing injury is possible on any play.

That’s common knowledge, and players are knowingly accepting those risks any time they set foot on a field. But after being told there’s been extra monetary incentive for defenders to create that damaging injury, a veteran and formerly elite player at a position with an exceedingly short shelf life shouldn’t just blandly accept the opposition’s malicious intent.

Yet there was LaDainian Tomlinson, giving his shoulder shrug while speaking with XX 1090 Sports Radio in San Diego: (via Sports Radio Interviews)

How would you feel if someone told you that you were a target and they put a ‘bounty’ on you during a game?

“I’m sure it has happened before. Think about this? Do you mean to tell me that guys are not naturally saying ‘you know what? I want to LT out of the game. He is the focus of that offense. I want to put him out of the game.’ They’re saying that anyway, so if a coach says it and they are going to put some money on it…I mean it is the same thing to me to be honest with you.”

There’s a clear difference, LT.

Yes, the brutal truth of football dictates that on any Sunday, players are aiming for a pre-existing injury. But there’s a line that should be drawn between encouraging physicality, and providing the extra incentive which advances a killer instinct that’s already raging and fueled by sheer adrenaline. In theory, defensive players are inherently paid to hurt people, and built-in incentives in their contracts for sacks, tackles, interceptions, etc. should easily serve as sufficient motivation.

That and, you know, winning a Super Bowl.

A very specific $10,000 bounty was placed on Brett Favre’s head by Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma during the 2009 NFC Championship game, and Favre’s response while speaking to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King was also a dismissive shrug.

 ”I’m not pissed. It’s football. I don’t think anything less of those guys. I would have loved to play with Vilma. Hell of a player. I’ve got a lot of respect for Gregg Williams. He’s a great coach. I’m not going to make a big deal about it. In all honesty, there’s a bounty of some kind on you on every play. Now, in that game there were some plays that, I don’t want to say were odd, but I’d throw the ball and whack, on every play. Hand it off, whack. Over and over. Some were so blatant. I hand the ball to Percy Harvin early and got drilled right in the chin. They flagged that one at least.”

Some younger players with more at stake have spoken out, and this is one of the few times Stevie Johnson has been the voice of reason.

Then there are the straight denials that have fed the confusion about Williams’ past, and his implementation of a bounty system prior to his time in New Orleans.

Ryan Clark, the safety who’s currently with the Steelers, had no knowledge of a bounty when he played for Williams in Washington in 2004 and 2005. If he ever became aware of a reward system, Clark told ESPN that he’d blow the whistle immediately.

“If these things are going on, you speak up while they’re happening,” Clark said. “If you’re in a meeting and a coach comes in and says, ‘Hey, No. 16, whoever he is, if you knock him out of the game we’re going to pay you x amount of dollars.’ Then you blow the whistle then and say, ‘Look, I’m not going to be a part of this. If we continue to do this, I will report it.’ To me, that’s making a statement, that’s making a stand and that’s being loyal to all the players in this league.”

Williams has more defenders in addition to Clark and Bowen, with Fred Smoot saying that he didn’t “coach dirty football.” Meanwhile, Harrison is interested to know where the Saints’ punishment will land in comparison to the numerous fines and suspensions he’s received over the past two seasons.

We all are, but as we wait it seems the most grizzled veterans are choosing to remain blind, while denials and conflicting statements bubble elsewhere.

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