PALM BEACH, Fla. — NFL coaches plan to go right at the league’s most sensitive subject — bounties — when they get together with players next month.
Although a few shied away from commenting at owners meetings this week about the New Orleans Saints’ bounty program, under which players were rewarded for big hits on specific opponents, most coaches said they found it important to discuss. And not only with the media, but with their teams.
“The whole league will talk about it,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday.
“The commissioner wants the entire league to make sure it’s discussed — to go forward using it as an example, to stress there is no place for that in our league.”
Several coaches echoed Coughlin, with the hope they will need to bring it up only once to their players. Clubs will gather for workouts in mid-April.
“It’s definitely necessary to mention it,” said Ron Rivera, whose Carolina Panthers play the Saints twice a year in the NFC South. “The precedent has been set by the commissioner and they need to understand that and it is not to be broached again. Going forward, we won’t have to go over these things again.”
Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell for the 2012 season and twice has apologized for his role in the bounty program. His former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, is barred indefinitely for overseeing the system. Williams was hired as defensive coordinator in St. Louis earlier this year.
Joe Vitt, Payton’s assistant head coach, was suspended for six games, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games, and the team was fined $500,000. New Orleans also loses a second-round pick in each of the next two drafts.
Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz stressed how easy it is to cross the line from acceptable rewards to something sinister.
Schwartz said past awards he’s given out while working for the Tennessee Titans and the Lions — baseball bats or a boxing glove for big hits — had league approval, because they didn’t have any monetary significance.
“It was part of the game-ball program. It wasn’t part of anything else,” Schwartz said. “A recognition system has been in effect for football since pee wee ball. We give out game balls. We give out trophies at the end of the season for all different things. A lot of colleges give out stickers on helmets; high schools give out stickers on helmets. There’s a big difference between things like that and things like bounties.”
Schwartz noted that it’s not unheard of for QBs to buy gifts for their linemen, or for running backs to do the same if they have a big season.
“That would all receive very good press,” he said. “I think what this shows is how fine some of the lines are and how easy it is to go from something like that that’s been around and has been part of football to something that should never be part of football and is not good for our game.”
The NFL sent lead counsel Jeff Pash and security director Jeffrey Miller to New Orleans to speak with the Saints about the bounties one day before they hosted Detroit in a wild-card game in January. The league officials told owner Tom Benson to make sure no bounty system still was in place.
New Orleans had already beaten Detroit in the regular season, when Lions pass rusher Ndamukong Suh was serving a suspension for stomping an opponent.
Was Schwartz aware of anything untoward by the Saints, either time?
“Other than we got beat twice?” he said. “They were physical games but I don’t recall them drawing any penalties. We were the only ones drawing penalties (in Week 13). I don’t recall anything that the guys thought was extra.”
Mike Smith’s Falcons are the Saints’ main rival in their division. Atlanta-New Orleans games usually are close, always are feisty.
“It is a physical game and there are rules we must play by,” Smith said. “As coaches, it is important we make sure we coach to that.”
One of the NFL’s most physical teams — and most fined — is Pittsburgh. Star linebacker James Harrison was suspended one game in 2011 for a hit to a defenseless player, Browns quarterback Colt McCoy. Harrison was deemed a repeat offender, and he frequently has been fined by Goodell for illegal hits.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said he’s heard of other teams supposedly placing bounties on the Steelers.
“That talk has been around, but for us, it’s not something that we’ve engaged in,” Tomlin said. “We’ve always been somewhat amused by it, not that it’s amusing, of course.”
Seattle coach Pete Carroll spent 15 years working in the NFL before going to Southern California for nine hugely successful seasons in college football. He returned to the pros in 2010.
He misses the aura that surrounded some players with a tough-guy image, but recognized that times change.
“The lore of the players that were unique, there’s not a place for that in a way,” he said. “Those of us who are the old-school guys, we miss that. We miss the uniqueness of the tough guys and the way that they were able to demonstrate that. But now, it just doesn’t fit.”
AP Sports Writer Tim Reynolds contributed to this story.