In a season in which the New Orleans Saints rewarded players for injuring opponents in a “pay-for-pain” bounty scheme, the team was among the most violent in the National Football League last year, a Reuters analysis shows.
The Saints were second in the NFL with 17 regular-season defensive flags for violating rules intended to protect players from being hurt, just behind the Oakland Raiders’ 18. The league averaged nine per team.
The Raiders have a long, proud tradition of aggressive rule-breaking.
“The Oakland Raiders have always been a very physical team,” said Jim Tunney, a 31-year veteran NFL referee.
“I think it has a lot to do with team discipline and the way the coach wants to approach the game,” he said.
Unlike the Raiders, though, the Saints did not otherwise commit a large number of penalties. As a result, violent penalties accounted for a league-high 37 percent of all the Saints’ defensive penalties. The Raiders, with the top number of 88 penalties overall, had a violent-penalty rate of only 20 percent. The league averaged 21 percent.
The Saints also led the league with 1.6 violent penalties per 100 defensive plays and the Raiders were second with 1.57 violent penalties per 100 such plays. The 32 NFL teams averaged just 0.84 on that basis.
When viewed together, the pattern of Saints’ penalties suggests the bounty system might have encouraged defensive players to be selectively more violent.
“The data are consistent with the notion that violent plays are being rewarded or pushed,” said Scott Berry, an expert on sports statistics at Berry Consultants in Austin, Texas, who reviewed Reuters’ analysis.
The controversy over the level of violence comes at a time when the NFL, which is facing lawsuits from hundreds of former players who suffered concussions, has made player safety a top priority.
Reuters used data from Football Outsiders, an NFL statistics Web site that keeps detailed logs of each penalty.
Violent penalties were defined as unnecessary roughness, roughing the passer, disqualification and personal fouls. All other defensive penalties, such as unsportsmanlike conduct, were considered non-violent in the analysis.
Data regarding the number of defensive plays came from FootballDB.com. The NFL declined to provide detailed penalty or injury data.
Officials with the NFL declined to comment. The Saints and the Raiders did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the analysis.
Last week, the NFL handed down stiff penalties against the Saints after finding that Saints defensive coach Gregg Williams ran a scheme that awarded Saints defensive players US$1,500 for a “knockout” and US$1,000 for “cart-off” injuries to opposing players during the 2009 to 2011 seasons.
The league suspended Saints head coach Sean Payton for an entire season. Williams — who had left the Saints for the St Louis Rams — was suspended indefinitely, and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis must step aside for the first eight games of this season. The Saints will also pay US$500,000 and forfeit selections for the second round of this year’s and next year’s drafts, a significant handicap.
By today, every NFL team must certify it does not have a similar bounty program.
Retired Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White is sure there are others.
“If I was a betting man, I’d go to Vegas with every penny I’ve got that there were other teams doing it ... I know when I played there was a bounty on me,” he said.