Former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams testified that he tried to shut down the team’s bounty system when the NFL began investigating but was overruled by interim Saints head coach Joe Vitt, according to transcripts from appeals hearings obtained by The Associated Press.
According to the transcripts, Williams said that then-assistant Vitt responded to a suggestion that the pay-for-pain setup be abandoned with an obscenity-filled speech about how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “wasn’t going to tell us to stop doing what won us the Super Bowl. This has been going on in the National Football League forever, and it will go on here forever, when they run (me) out of there, it will still go on.”
Williams and Vitt were among a number of witnesses whose testimony was heard by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who on Tuesday overturned four player suspensions in the case. Tagliabue was appointed by Goodell to handle the final round of appeals. The AP obtained transcripts of Tagliabue’s closed-door hearings through a person with a role in the case.
Vitt was a Saints assistant who was banned for six games for his part in the scandal but now is filling in for head coach Sean Payton, who was suspended for the entire season. Williams was suspended indefinitely by Goodell. Others who testified included former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo, the initial whistleblower and considered a key NFL witness.
Transcripts portray the former coaching colleagues, all part of the Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl championship, as bitterly disagreeing with one another and occasionally contradicting how the NFL depicted the bounty system.
Vitt, Williams and Cerullo appeared separately before Tagliabue, and were questioned by lawyers for the NFL and lawyers representing the players originally suspended by Goodell: Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove.
Tagliabue’s ruling found that “Saints’ coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL’s investigation. “
The transcripts, which could be entered as evidence in Vilma’s pending defamation case against Goodell, include numerous testy and sometimes humorous exchanges between witnesses and lawyers — and between Tagliabue and the lawyers.
Offering to take a lie detector test, Vitt challenged versions given by Williams and Cerullo. Vitt vowed to sue Cerullo and described Williams as “narcissistic.” He referred to both as disgruntled former employees who were fired.
Vitt depicted Cerullo as incompetent and said he missed work numerous times, and offered bizarre, fabricated excuses for his absences.
Vitt was asked whether he oversaw Cerullo’s attempts to destroy evidence related to bounties, which the NFL determined the Saints sanctioned from 2009-11, with thousands of dollars offered for hits that injured opponents and knocked them out of games.
“No. The answer is no,” Vitt said. “Cerullo is an idiot.”
Williams stood by his earlier sworn statement that Vilma pledged a $10,000 bounty on quarterback Brett Favre in the Saints’ game against the Minnesota Vikings for the NFC championship. But Williams also said that the performance pool he ran was aimed at team bonding, not bounties.
“The game is about a mental toughness on top of a physical toughness,” Williams testified at one point. “You know, it’s not golf.”
Williams, however, acknowledged he suggested Favre should be knocked out of the game.
“We want to play tough, hard-nosed football and look to get ready to play against the next guy. Brett is a friend of mine and so that’s just part of this business,” Williams said. “You know, at no time, you know, are we looking to try to end anybody’s career.”
Williams described player pledges to the pool as “nominal” and said they rarely kept the money they earned, either putting it back in the pool or offering it as tips to equipment personnel. In the case of the large amounts pledged during the playoffs, Williams described it as “air” or “funny money” or “banter,” adding that he never actually saw any cash collected or distributed and had no idea what would have happened to the money if Cerullo collected it.
Cerullo said hits for cash started with Williams telling the staff that “Sean kind of put him in charge of bringing back a swagger to the defense so he wanted to brainstorm with us as coaches what we thought we could do. At one point in one of those meetings, Joe Vitt suggested (his previous teams) had a pay-for-play, pay-for-incentive program that the guys kind of bought into and kind of had fun with, and, you know, that was his suggestion. At that point, Gregg also admitted that other places he was at, they had the same type of thing. And at that point, Gregg kind of ran with it.”
Cerullo described pregame meetings during the playoffs, when the Saints faced quarterback Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals and then Favre.
He said Vitt told players Warner “should have been retired” and “we’re going to end the career tomorrow of Kurt Warner.” Cerullo also quoted Vitt as saying of Favre: “That old man should have retired when I was there. Is he retiring, isn’t he retiring — that whole (thing) is over, you know, tomorrow. We’ll end the career tomorrow. We’ll force him to retire. “