By Kevin Braig
The Second Coming of the QuantCoach
Here is the QuantCoach’s instruction to New Orleans head coach Sean Payton.
Stay at the foot of the cross.
This is the same instruction that Vince Lombardi gave running back Paul Hornung in 1963 when former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended the great Green Bay halfback—and 1961 NFL MVP—for one year for betting on NFL games.
“You stay at the foot of the cross,” Lombardi told Hornung, according to David Maraniss in When Pride Still Mattered
. “I don’t want to hear about you doing anything. Keep your nose clean and I’ll do my best to get you back. But, mister, stay at the foot of the cross.”
On March 21, current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed Payton his own one-year suspension
from the NFL for Payton’s role in covering up a bounty program led by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams that rewarded players with cash payments for injuring Saints’ opponents.
“No, I’m not OK
,” a stunned Payton reportedly told Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer after receiving the most severe penalty an NFL head coach has ever received. Payton, who justifiably is recognized as one of the NFL’s master offensive play designers and the architect of New Orleans’ 2009 Super Bowl championship, subsequently appealed the punishment.
“You and I and everybody else weren’t in on all the meetings and (don’t) know really what happened,” Hornung said when informed of Payton’s suspension
. “Usually when something like this happens, the whole story doesn’t come out.”
During Hornung’s playing days, a player of his stature could place a bet in front of the writers and it would not end up in the newspaper, as legendary reporter Dick Schaap recounted in Sport Magazine
when the betting story enveloping Hornung and Detroit's Alex Karras broke.
“I saw him back the Packers, and when his team won by more than the point spread, he earned $100,” Schaap wrote.
That is not the world in which Payton finds himself.
In the world today, 30,000 people are expected to show up
on Easter Sunday at a church in Texas to hear New York Jets’ quarterback Tim Tebow to deliver a sermon
And every one of them will have a camera.
Today, the whole story does come out.
In Payton’s case, an ambitious filmmaker named Sean Pamphilon
, who directed the ESPN 30 for 30
film on running back Ricky Williams entitled “Run Ricky Run,” was the one with the camera. With Payton’s appeal in the hands of the Commissioner Goodell, Pamphilon released audio of Williams
urging New Orleans defenders to target the heads and knees of their San Francisco opponents
in last season’s divisional playoff game.
“If this story hadn’t been broken and made public,” Pamphilon wrote on his web site
, “I would not have shared this.”
Payton’s appeal was almost sure to fail before Pamphilon released his audio, and the release undoubtedly sealed Payton’s fate.
But that did not stop Payton from trying to escape his station at the foot of the cross.
During New Orleans' appeal of Payton’s suspension, “Saints officials reportedly threw their former colleague [Williams] under every bus in mid-town Manhattan, essentially framing him as a rogue agent in the diabolical pay-for-pain program,” Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported
Williams is a football troglodyte to be sure.
But football has been evolving from a brutishly violent activity into an intellectual game of competing designs almost from its birth.
In 1905, with football so violent that 18 players were killed in games, President Theodore Roosevelt pressured the colleges into modifying their rules
to make the game safer. Out went the flying wedge and in came the forward pass. The game became both safer and more entertaining. And it became more susceptible to being bent by the intellect of great play designers like Sean Payton.
That trend continues today.
Last year, the NFL banned the last vestige of wedge blocking that brought the colleges before the POTUS when it banned the use of any combination of players to form a wedge on kickoffs
For the first time, one can actually envision an NFL in which collisions are nearly completely forbidden in all aspects of the game and the NFL still
maintains its status as by far the most popular sport on television. That is what will happen unless technology achieves what currently seems impossible: The design of a helmet that prevents all
But the fact that with each passing day football becomes more Payton’s game of (passing) play design and less Williams’ game of crude violence does not mean that Payton will or should receive a pass on his one-year suspension.
When Hornung was suspended, he knew that many other—less celebrated—players were also betting on games and would not be suspended, but he said nothing. Hornung recognized that his suspension would be a symbolic one.
Likewise, Payton’s suspension is a symbolic one.
Payton’s suspension symbolizes the NFL’s ultimate and nearly complete transformation from a game determined by raw violence into a game determined by play design and skillful execution of that design.
“I made a terrible mistake,” Hornung immediately said when confronted by reporters who had just learned of his suspension. “I realize that now. I am truly sorry. What else is there to say?”
Likewise, there is nothing else for the Saints' head coach to say in this matter.
Payton still must stay at the foot of the cross
That is where one has always found true saints.