Two years after reigning as the feel-good story of the National Football League, the New Orleans Saints have been sacked by league commissioner Roger Goodell.
In a decision Wednesday that could have far-reaching effects on a powerful division opponent of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Goodell handed down some of the harshest punishment ever levied against a professional sports organization.
An extensive NFL investigation revealed New Orleans management and players endangered player safety from 2009-2011 by offering "bounty" payments to hurt opponents.
The probe also showed Saints management deliberately misled league investigators and disregarded orders from team owner Tom Benson to discontinue the program.
"Clearly, we were lied to," Goodell said on NFL Network. "I don't think you can be too hard on people that put at risk our players' health and safety. That is a critical issue for us — we always protect that."
Head coach Sean Payton, architect of an offense that ranked No. 1 in the league four times during his six-year tenure with the Saints, was suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season, forfeiting $7 million in salary. The suspension is effective April 1.
The Saints were fined $500,000 and stripped of their second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
General manager Mickey Loomis was suspended without pay for the first eight regular season games. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, just hired by the St. Louis Rams, was suspended indefinitely. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended without pay for the first six games.
Goodell said sanctions against players involved in the bounty program may be levied at a later date, following consultation with the NFL Players Association.
Payton, 62-34 as New Orleans coach, guided the 2009 Saints to a Super Bowl victory, four years after Hurricane Katrina flooded the Crescent City and turned the Superdome into a disaster relief center.
"I commend Commissioner Goodell on his discipline of the New Orleans Saints," former Bucs coach Tony Dungy said on Twitter. "Coaches and front office should be held to a higher standard than players."
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael or new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is expected to replace Payton on the sidelines for the Saints, who won the NFC South with a 13-3 record last year.
"I am speechless," Saints Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees said on Twitter. "Sean Payton is a great man, coach and mentor, the best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this punishment."
Goodell said Wednesday's decision should be heeded by the NFL's other 31 clubs.
"When there is targeting of players for injury and cash rewards, the involvement of the coaching staff and three years of denials and willful disrespect of the rules, a strong and lasting message must be sent," said Goodell, who has made player safety a priority of his administration.
"It is clear the league took the role of management and the coaching staff seriously in this matter," the NFL Players Association said in a statement.
Concussions have been a hot-button issue in pro football for several years and Wednesday's ruling could be seen as an example of the NFL's commitment to player safety in advance of potential lawsuits.
"I'm very shocked," Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood said, "but apparently Goodell is making sure it never happens again."
Goodell also sent a memo to all NFL clubs, directing the principal owner to meet with the head coach to ensure — in writing — that no other team is engaged in the same tactics that prompted the league's harsh sanctions against the Saints.
According to the NFL's investigation team, Williams acknowledged he "designed" and "implemented" a program with the assistance of certain Saints defensive players, rewarding hits that resulted in injured opponents forced to the sidelines.
At times, said the NFL report, the bounties targeted specific players by name.
Guard Carl Nicks, who left the Saints last week as a free agent to sign with the Buccaneers, appeared surprised by Wednesday's ruling.
"No 1 man should have all that POWER,'' Nicks said on Twitter. "Saints or not, those guys are my brothers! I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy."
The league said the bounty scheme targeted specific opponents, including quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, paying sums for "knockouts" and "cart-offs."
New Orleans defensive back Jabari Greer took the news hard, suggesting Goodell's sanctions are excessive.
"We're being punished on intent," Greer told SiriusXM NFL Radio. "Nobody has shown through the film of us maliciously going after and trying to hurt someone. We play a violent game. It seems as if they are trying to destroy our season. They are trying to take away our leaders, but it's not going to happen. We are New Orleans. We will be strong, we will get through this and we will win."
Williams, hired by new St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher two months ago, apologized to the NFL, the Rams and football fans for his role in the Saints bounty program.
Capping a dynamic afternoon, Fisher took to the podium in St. Louis to address the indefinite suspension of Williams.
"Just before coming down, I was watching the commissioner doing an interview," Fisher said. "Not an easy day for him. Not a good day for the National Football League.