FROM THE SUPER BOWL TO SUSPENDED
In mid-March 2012, Sean Payton was walking briskly through the hallway on the sixth floor of the NFL’s midtown Manhattan headquarters at 345 Park Avenue. He was taking a quick break from a meeting with Commissioner Roger Goodell that was the equivalent to a student being called into the principal’s office.
Payton had a card key in his left hand as he passed through a reception area on his way to a bathroom just beyond locked glass double doors. He stopped for a moment to chat with a familiar face and kept on going. The league had moved a few blocks uptown nine months earlier from its offices at 280 Park Avenue, where it did business during most of Paul Tagliabue’s time as commissioner and Goodell’s first five years.
The look on Payton’s face didn’t lie. He was worried.
“Has Roger informed you of the discipline?” he was asked.
“No,” he said.
He swiped the key, went through the glass doors, and two minutes later was passing back through the reception area on his return to Goodell’s office. He was meeting with his professional executioner. It was barely two years since Goodell had handed him the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the New Orleans Saints’ feel-good Super Bowl victory over the favored Indianapolis Colts. Now Goodell was giving Payton one last chance to plead his case for leniency before he would hand out the first suspension of a head coach in the NFL’s ninety-two-year history.
The reception area in the league’s new office was state of the art. Payton glanced at the immense high-definition flat screen television with square panels. The picture covered almost an entire wall. Naturally, it was tuned to the NFL Network. If Payton had taken a seat on one of the leather couches and kept Goodell waiting just a few minutes, he could have seen himself as the lead story on the network’s news updates. It was the second meeting between Payton and Goodell after an NFL investigation had uncovered one of the biggest scandals in league history. The Saints had been accused of setting bounties on opposing players for the previous three seasons, including their dramatic Super Bowl season of 2009. Payton hadn’t been part of the bounty meetings, which the league said was run by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and funded by Williams and the players, but he had gotten himself into deep trouble by not putting an end to it when he was told the league was investigating in 2010 and then not being forthcoming about what he knew in his initial meeting with the league investigators in New York in 2012. Goodell demands honest answers to questions.
Payton must have felt that the Lombardi Trophy, which he said he slept with and joked that he slobbered on the night the Saints won the championship, made him bulletproof. The Saints were aware the league was investigating them shortly after the Super Bowl, but Payton was intoxicated with success and the league felt he ignored its warnings. If Payton could not control Williams, he could have fired him. His self-importance came through in the first meeting in New York, when he spoke with league security. He was spitting smokeless tobacco into a Styrofoam cup. It’s a good thing Goodell was not present for that portion of the meeting or he would have tossed him out of the office and personally escorted him onto Park Avenue.
No one person is bigger than the league. It doesn’t matter if you are at the head of the class in the next generation of great coaches, already have won a Super Bowl ring, make $5 million a year, and helped in the healing process of one of the great natural disasters in the country’s history. The NFL will not let its $9 billion a year business be brought down by a group of renegade coaches and players.
Payton had become one of the faces of the league after the Saints did their part in helping the city of New Orleans get over the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that ravaged the Big Easy in 2005 one year before he arrived. Until then, Payton was known for being a scab quarterback for the Chicago Bears during the twenty-four-day players strike in 1987, being close friends with Jon Gruden, and doing good work as the Giants’ offensive coordinator when they went to the Super Bowl in 2000 but then being run out of New York by Jim Fassel two years later when he was demoted from his play-calling duties. If it’s true that things eventually work out for the best if you keep working hard, leaving New York and going to work for Bill Parcells when he was hired as the Dallas head coach in 2003 was the best thing that ever happened to Payton. They had no connection other than that they had worked for the Giants at different times. They hit it off right away.
Having Parcells on his résumé was a good thing for Payton. Just one season with the Cowboys had put him in position to be offered the Raiders’ head coaching job by Al Davis. But the Raiders had become a burial ground for coaches, and Payton turned down Davis and kept building his portfolio working for Parcells. He had been instrumental in recruiting Tony Romo to sign with the Cowboys as a free agent after he went undrafted in 2003 and then played a big role in his development that led to Parcells benching Drew Bledsoe early in the 2006 season and elevating Romo to the starting quarterback job. By then, Payton was in New Orleans and had tried and failed to acquire Romo in a trade shortly after he took the Saints job and before signing Drew Brees as a free agent.
Payton had an edge to him that Parcells loved, and they did have some things in common. Parcells lost both his parents during the 1983 season with the Giants. Payton lost his mother during the 2002 season with the Giants. Fassel had given him the play-calling duties after his own mother died in 1999. He took the play-calling responsibilities back just eleven days after Payton’s mother died. Payton, who previously had lost his dad, considered Parcells a father figure. Parcells has three daughters and treated Payton like the son he never had. It was Payton’s confidence that allowed him to turn down the Raiders job; he knew that if he stuck with Parcells, a better opportunity would come his way. Two years later, after the 2005 season, he interviewed in Green Bay and New Orleans. He was crushed when the Packers hired Mike McCarthy, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator. That was the job Payton wanted, and he got the news from Packers general manager Ted Thompson while he was in New Orleans interviewing with the Saints. But he could have the Saints job if he wanted it. At the time, it was far from the most attractive spot in the league. The city was still trying to rebuild after Katrina, and the Saints were coming off a 3–13 season in which they spent the year based in San Antonio and played all their games on the road.
It was Payton’s belief in himself and his arrogance, a trait that later would betray him, that led him to accept the ultimate coaching challenge. He packed up his young family from a beautiful suburb in Dallas where they were very happy and moved to New Orleans, where reminders of Katrina and the havoc it had caused were all around. In his first season, Payton had the Saints in the NFC championship game, where they lost to the Bears in Chicago. Considering how far the Saints had come in one year, it was a tremendous achievement. By his fourth season, he won the Super Bowl, just as his mentor Parcells did in his fourth season with the Giants.
Payton needed his second trip to New York to be more productive than his first when the league had summoned him and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis to headquarters without telling them why. They knew the league had reopened the bounty investigation, but the invitation was not specific. They were caught off guard when they were peppered with questions from the NFL’s security department when they met individually in a conference room down the hall from Goodell’s office. The security staff shared some of the evidence it had gathered with Payton and Loomis. Goodell was not in the meeting, but after the security staff finished each interview, Goodell was brought in to speak with Payton and Loomis one on one. There had been talk around the NFL that after he won the Super Bowl, Payton was so full of himself it was bordering on unbearable and now he didn’t appear credible when he denied knowledge of what was going on in the defensive meeting room.
Payton had his hand in everything related to his team, and the league found it hard to believe that something that was so blatantly in violation of NFL rules was going on in his building and he had no idea. Paul Hicks, the league’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, kept a copy of Payton’s book Home Team: Coaching the Saints and New Orleans Back to Life, which Payton wrote after the Saints won the Super Bowl. Hicks and one of his staff members went through it and took notes on passages where Payton discusses his attention to detail. Hicks then reported back to Goodell, who had not read the book. The commissioner asked several sources he trusted how likely it was that Payton was in the dark while Williams and the defensive players were setting bounties on some of the biggest names in the league. The conclusion was that Payton had to have known what Williams was doing even if he was trying to distance himself from Williams, because nothing happened with his football team without his knowledge.
Payton had requested this second meeting with Goodell. They had spoken on the phone several times. Payton asked if they could get together while Goodell was in Florida attending committee meetings in advance of the league meetings later that month in Palm Beach. But Goodell was going to be tied up with the committees, so Payton arranged to come back to New York the next week. Saints owner Tom Benson was also in the league offices that day but met separately with Goodell. Payton was casually dressed for the occasion in a sport shirt and a pair of slacks. After returning from the men’s room, he settled back into Goodell’s office for another thirty minutes of trying to explain himself. The commissioner was beyond angry. He is a man of principle, an admirable trait passed down from his father. His mission was to make the game safer for the players, and here was Williams running a system that encouraged players to hurt other players; players committing unforgivable player-on-player crimes when they were supposed to be a fraternity that played hard but clean; and the head coach, a Super Bowl winner, not stopping it. Other than players or coaches betting on games, which would destroy the integrity of the league, it doesn’t get much worse than players trying to hurt one another in a game that is already ultraviolent. It was now clear to the league that the Saints’ strategy was to pin the blame on Williams, who had left after the 2011 season.
Payton couldn’t have felt good as he looked around Goodell’s corner office, which overlooked Fifty-First Street and Park Avenue. It’s a big office, not as big as the one he had at 280 Park but plenty large enough to have a desk on one side and a conference table on the other side. There is a big screen television to the right of a desk surrounded by photos and books. There’s a collection of footballs. On one wall is a copy of the Congressional Record. Goodell’s father, Charles Goodell, was a congressman from upstate New York when he was appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to fill a U.S. Senate seat after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. He took office two months after Kennedy’s death. Goodell was a Republican. Kennedy was a Democrat. As Kennedy’s replacement, Goodell angered President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew with his opposition to the Vietnam War. The Congressional Record means a lot to Roger Goodell. It contained the original copy of Bill S. 3000, sponsored by Charles Goodell, which proposed an end to the funding for the war.
The administration targeted him as a turncoat, a Republican turned liberal. Agnew called him the Christine Jorgensen—famous for a sex change operation from male to female—of the Republican Party. “We’re five boys; we’re a pretty tight-knit group,” Roger Goodell said. “Somebody attacks your father, you’re upset. The five of us were ready to go. My father would always laugh it off. It never got under his skin. He would understand that he was being attacked politically, but he never took it personally. The Goodell boys did.”
Charles Goodell’s stance on the war wound up costing him the Senate seat. He had the nomination of the Republican and Liberal parties in 1970 but split the liberal vote with Democrat Richard Ottinger, allowing the conservative James Buckley to win. “It was difficult on one level, but it was educational and important from a principle standpoint,” Roger Goodell said. “He stood up for what he believed in regardless of the consequences. He knew what the consequences were going to be.”
Charles Goodell died in 1987. He was just sixty years old. By then, his son was working in the NFL office after a massive job-seeking letter-writing campaign—he bombarded league executives with more than forty letters—that wound up getting him an entry-level job, stopping the letters and rewarding his perseverance. Roger Goodell had long ago told his father of his career goal. He wanted to be the commissioner of the NFL.
As Payton sat at the big conference table, he could catch a glance over his shoulder at the reason Goodell was so infuriated. It was the reason he should not count on leniency. Mounted on the wall was a metal replica of the NFL shield. Goodell is consumed with his responsibility to protect the shield. The Saints and Payton had done huge damage to the shield. Any degree of contrition Payton would show would be measured against his motive: Was he saying things Goodell wanted to hear so that Goodell would go easier on him when he decided on the discipline?
The culture of the team had gone way off course. The Saints thought they were above NFL rules and were trying to set their own. They were sticking it in the league’s face after being told in 2010 that NFL investigators were on to them. Everything that happens with a football team is the responsibility of the head coach. That goes for everything from calling for the game-changing onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl against the Colts that had Parcells raving about Payton’s “balls” to being aware that your defensive coordinator has set up a system to reward players $1,000 for “cart-offs,” when the opposing player is carried off the field, and $1,500 for “knockouts,” which sidelined them for the rest of the game. The league’s investigation revealed the pool might have reached $50,000 or more at its height during the 2009 playoffs and that linebacker Jonathan Vilma in 2009 offered $10,000 to anybody who knocked Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner out of the NFC divisional round or Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC championship game. Warner was crushed after throwing an interception as he ran to make the tackle early in the second quarter but remained in the game through three quarters, when the Cardinals trailed by 35 points. Favre took every snap but absorbed several vicious hits. The Saints won the game in overtime.
Excerpted from Coaching Confidential by Gary Myers. Copyright © 2012 by Gary Myers. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.