Sean Payton took responsibility for his role in the Saints' bounties.

The more I read about Gregg Williams and the bounties he organized in New Orleans and likely elsewhere, I continue to think that those calling for his outright dismissal from his current position in St. Louis (or a similar fate for Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis) are leaping towards a rash conclusion that will solve very little.

As we learned this morning, it’s difficult to gauge just how widespread monetary incentives are in the NFL, either of the bounty variety, or the more innocent but still illegal rewards for major plays at major moments. There’s dissension and split memories among players when discussing the subject.

But what’s being conveniently avoided in the rush to paint Williams as the league’s villain is the sheep-like ways of NFL players. Their leaders have and always will be the most culpable in times of scandal, which is why Williams will be punished, and so will Payton for his negligence. And the players will face some form of stiff punishment too, but to strip either Williams or Payton of their employment is stating that without them, the New Orleans bounties wouldn’t have existed.

The root of NFL bounties lies within a mentality and a culture, an environment that shouldn’t exist. But it does, and while Williams may have fed the carnal desires and instincts of his players, they’re not animals incapable of thought. They should be fully equipped with a moral compass and be able to stand up to authority, just as London Fletcher suggested.

Yet no one did. The Saints craved the glory of the post-game paycheck, and in a must-read story by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that went online earlier today, those same Saints players were reduced to the level of Pavlov’s dog.

King described the typical post-game scene in the Saints locker room, complete with Williams’ best Tony Soprano imitation as he waved around white envelopes filled with money for deeds will done. Players would chant “give it back!” when their teammates received their reward, which led to the pot growing exponentially.

The pinnacle came during the 2010 NFC Championship game against the Vikings, a loss that was particularly brutal for Brett Favre, who was the target of hits that later resulted in a total of $25,000 in fines for defensive linemen Bobby McCray and Anthony Hargrove. After a high-low hit by McCray and fellow lineman Remi Ayodele in the third quarter that should have been flagged and left Favre with a sprained left ankle, Hargrove excitedly said “Favre is out of the game! Favre is done! Favre is done!”

That kind of conduct happens nearly every week in the NFL. What’s alarming is what followed, with King writing that an on-field microphone directed toward the sideline picked up an unidentified player saying “pay me my money!”

They knew their role. Make hits, win games, get paid. Williams was the kingpin of his mob, and he’ll be punished as such with a fine, and more likely a suspension. Ditto for Payton, and the entire Saints organization could be crippled by Roger Goodell through the loss of draft picks.

But there’s a psychology to this that would be disregarded if either coach is stripped of his employment. Maybe that’s Goodell’s strategy–if you break the man, you break the culture. That was the hint from one of King’s sources.

“This is a seminal moment in the culture change we have to make,” said the source close to Goodell, who asked to not be identified because the investigation is ongoing. “This has to stop now. Every team needs to hear the message that we’re in a different era now, where this appalling behavior is going to end.”

By making Williams the face of that sweeping cultural statement despite the presence of so many others in this lineage of stupidity, Goodell will also be punishing a franchise that’s already on its knees.

The Rams just fired their coach this offseason, and then restored optimism with Jeff Fisher. That optimism would take a blow with Williams, their new defensive coordinator, gone long-term or forever. With the Rams’ position in St. Louis tenuous at best after they averaged about 10,000 empty seats for every home game last year, they can’t take too many more sucker punches to the gut. Goodell is clearly aware of this, and he needs to maintain the health of his league. The Rams are still an innocent bystandards.

For their part, Payton and Mickey Loomis finally broke their silence on Tuesday. Attempting to soften their blows, they took responsibility and issued this statement:

“This has brought undue hardship on Mr. Benson, who had nothing to do with this activity. He has been nothing but supportive and for that we both apologize to him.

These are serious violations and we understand the negative impact it has had on our game. Both of us have made it clear within our organization that this will never happen again, and make that same promise to the NFL and most importantly to all of our fans.”

Those are forced words, fresh from a public relations desk. They’re also a mere formality, and nothing will stop the fist that’s about to be lowered on New Orleans. The punishment will be severe and devastating, and it’ll likely wipe out the Saints’ high draft picks this year after they already traded their first-round pick to acquire Mark Ingram.

Goodell should be swift and decisive, but not irrational just to protect his players from injuries that can’t be directly connected to the motivation provided by any bounty, and likely would have happened regardless.