AS WORD has spread that New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams paid his players bonuses if they took out the opposition - which is to say, injuring them with intent - it came as no surprise to Eagles fans of a certain age. The so-called "Bounty Bowl" between the Eagles and Cowboys in 1989 has become a staple of team lore.
To revisit what happened that Thanksgiving Day: In the aftermath of a hard hit by Eagles linebacker Jessie Small on Cowboys placekicker Luis Zendejas - who left the game with a concussion - Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson alleged that Eagles coach Buddy Ryan had placed a $200 bounty on Zendejas. The kicker was a former Eagle who said he had been warned by Philadelphia special-teams coach Al Roberts that he had been targeted.
Johnson also alleged that Ryan had placed a $500 price on the head of quarterback Troy Aikman. While Ryan would toss these allegations off as "high school Charlie stuff," Johnson would say in his postgame press conference such play "takes away from the integrity of the game." He added that he would have "said something" to Ryan on the field, except that his Eagles counterpart "put his big rear end into the dressing room."
So, what actually occurred that day? Is there a parallel to what NFL security found to have occurred in New Orleans, where players were rewarded from a bounty pool of up to $50,000 with payments for actions such as knocking a player out of the game or having an opponent carried off the field?
According to some of the players who were with the Eagles then - free safety Wes Hopkins, linebacker Britt Hager and defensive tackle/end Mike Pitts - there is no parallel in that Small received no payment for his hit on Zendejas, who had irritated Ryan with some of his comments to the press. However, Hopkins does remember that, "Buddy asked or told Jessie Small to block Luis Zendejas on the kickoff . . . That was the only time a particular player was targeted by one of our players to be blocked or hit. But there was no money involved."
Did Ryan specify how he wanted Zendejas blocked? "No, just go hit him and take him out," said Hopkins, who now lives in Alabama. "I guess it was understood that when a 6-4, 240 linebacker who goes to block a kicker, and he is running full speed at him, it is going to be a big hit . . . That was something that would have never been done on a kicker, because no one was ever designated to block the kicker on a kickoff."
So, did Ryan ever target any other opposing players that way?
Hopkins said no.
But Hopkins did say that earlier in that 1989 season at Veterans Stadium the defense was under orders to "take out" San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana. "In the first half, we had sacked him five times, I think it was, but he was still in the game," Hopkins said. "We were up 14 or something like that at halftime and we were stunned because Buddy was so upset. He picked up a chair and threw it. He wanted to knock Montana out of that game. We kept blitzing in the second half, even when it was unnecessary. You would think we would have played more of a standard defense to keep them from scoring."
With Montana throwing for 428 and five touchdowns, the 49ers won, 38-28.
Hopkins said that no money would have changed hands if Montana had been sent off the field with an injury.
Hopkins added that no opposing players were targeted the following year in the so-called "Body Bag Game" against Washington, during which six Redskins were injured (including two quarterbacks). "No, that was just our defense," Hopkins said. "We just had a phenomenal game. Whenever we tackled somebody, they just seemed to get hurt . . . There were no bounties involved."
But Hopkins, Hager and Pitts conceded that there was a pool of money that was paid out for "big hits." The money in the pool was accumulated from fines that were levied on players by the coaches for lateness and such. Hopkins said the money was then transferred back to the players during film sessions as a "kind of incentive package" to reward big hits. Hager and Pitts echoed that. Both also agreed with Hopkins that the pay was not connected to any intent to injure an opposing player.
"There would be payout for big plays - only a couple of hundred dollars," said Hager, a rookie in 1989 and currently president of My Smart Healthy, a food and beverage company based in Austin, Texas. "Usually, it was for big hits, or for fumble recoveries or interceptions. The players would vote on it."
Hager said that "it was pretty common in the league when I played."
He said that Andre Waters, legendary for his illegal hits, was not rewarded for "any of that cheap-shot crap he pulled." Steeped in dementia and depression, Waters committed suicide in 2006 by shooting himself in the head. An autopsy revealed he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (ETC), a condition that stems from the jarring of the brain inside the skull.
Hager said, "No dirty play was rewarded."
He said, "The way it worked, we would be in the film room and the coaches would say, 'Great play! That is how the game is supposed to be played.' And then whoever was running the pool would slip you your amount."
Pitts more or less confirmed that scenario. "You would be rewarded for a KO block on your opponent," said Pitts, who now works as a sales agent for Pepsi in Georgia. "The coaches would review the film and the players would vote on what was a big hit. The special-teams coach or somebody like that would hold the money."
Pitts added that "probably six players" would be rewarded each week.
"Every team in the league has done this," he said. "If you find some team that says they never did it, they are lying."
Ultimately, Pitts said it was "just a way of having some fun." He added, "And it gave some players some recognition."
But that was 20 years ago or so. What once was looked upon as "fun" is now viewed with a wary eye. Unlike former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue - who performed just a cursory "investigation" into the Zendejas hit - Roger Goodell has taken a hard line on promoting player safety. In an effort to prevent unnecessary head blows - which can lead to concussions and perhaps even ETC - Goodell has fined players heavily for illegal hits and the league has instituted rules changes. Former players have filed lawsuits alleging that the NFL was an unsafe environment. According to Comcast SportsNet football analyst Ray Didinger, it would "absolutely support" the claims by the plaintiffs "if they can establish that there was a pattern in New Orleans and elsewhere of coaches paying players to injure other players." Didinger added, "The commissioner has shown he will come down on the players. Is he going to apply the same standards to the executives and coaches?"
Williams, now the defensive coordinator with the Rams, has acknowledged he was wrong. Yesterday, Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis said in a statement that they take "full responsibility" for the bounty program. Substantial fines, loss of draft picks and suspensions are likely.
So how does Didinger look upon the practice of a bonus system that teams apparently have employed? To begin with, he said the extra payments to the players circumvent the salary cap and could be looked upon by the Internal Revenue Service as unreported income. That said, he added that while such a bonus system would appear to be "relatively harmless," it is a far cry from what is alleged to have happened in New Orleans.
"What you have in New Orleans is a coach who has put in place and actually administered a bounty system - which rewards players for knocking opponents out of games and injuring other players," he said. "When you do that, you have stepped across a wide and dangerous line."
Hopkins added that he was saddened by what is alleged to have occurred in New Orleans. "That is outside the lines," he said. "You never want to injure anyone. Because as a player you always know: You could be that person next time."