Scrutiny of the Bounty: A prequel

We’ve been quiet here lately, though not for a lack of notable sports events, even if they are coming in the one sport that’s currently in it’s offseason. Two big NFL stories have been developing in fits and tumbles over the past week or two: 1) Peyton Manning leaving the Indianapolis Colts, and 2) Gregg Williams and Bountygate. There isn’t much to say about the first story yet, or maybe ever. He’ll go to a team. It won’t be the Titans. And we’ll get some variety of Joe Montana in Kansas City or Brett Favre in New York. He won’t have teammates like Marvin Harrison, Jeff Saturday, and Dallas Clark who are on his level, and we’ll probably see a lot of sad Manningfaces peering out of an unfamiliarly colored helmet.

As for the second story: first, a nod to Deadspin for the title tag to this post, and very quickly second, this:

That out of the way, how much can one really say about the bounties Williams and certainly other coaches paid to players for big hits on important players, and how much does one really want to say given the at least tiresome and likely nauseating cliche-laden moral hand-wringing on the part of the sports media?

Instead, we’ll offer a short, derivative series on the bounty story through the eyes of the evolving media reaction. As usual when I start a series of posts without fully mapping it out, the first post is the best (e.g., here and here), and this is likely to be no exception.

This first item is interesting because it was a profile of the New Orleans Saints’ defense under Williams published just before the bounty story broke. Untainted by the news of the bounties, the NFL’s investigation, or the media reaction to it, The Classical’s Charles Star offers up an innocent (from the writer’s perspective) take that’s telling upon retrospective re-read:

…  The NFL lost one of its most compulsively watchable pieces of weirdness when the 49ers knocked the Saints out of the playoffs. Not the Drew Brees-powered offense, although that carnival left town, too, when Alex Smith decided not to be Alex Smith for a still-implausible 5 minutes. No, the weirdness was on the other side of the ball, where defensive coordinator Gregg Williams continued to define defense down in ever stranger and less effective ways.

With the departure of Williams to St. Louis, the violent, anarchic free-for-all that New Orleans was forced to call “a defense” will not be seen again anytime soon, at least unless the Rams visit the Superdome. This is fine, of course, if also a little sad. Usually, the sui generis label is applied to something unique and extraordinary. Pathbreaking and riveting. The Saints defense during the Williams years was none of these things, but it was also sui generis. How does a defense like this develop? The answer won’t be found by analyzing game tape; to understand the Gregg Williams Ineffective Mayhem Experiment, we must turn to evolutionary biology.

… [The Saints’ defense] blundered with what was either self-defeating generosity or abject indifference into desperate and melodramatic straits, then triumphed telegenically at the last possible moment. More often than not, this happened when opponents returned the here-have-all-this-yardage favor by throwing the ball into the arms of an end-stage Darren Sharper, who by that point could no longer cover anyone, but was cagey enough to put himself in the path of bad passes. The 2010 defense, in contrast, looked good to the computers, although the humiliation they suffered at the stiff arms and churning feet of Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch in the Beast Mode wild card game was what the defense looked like all season to my eyes. This year, both computers and my eyes agreed that the Saints defense was a catastrophe. Infuriating as the unit was to watch, it was at least refreshing to have my paranoia justified.

In all those seasons, the Saints defense was grounded in a simple philosophy: blitz a lot, from all angles; pressure the quarterback constantly; and just let the rest happen. It is, as described, a compelling idea. It was, as executed, terrible. Nothing stands out statistically about these defenses—although, after the unit’s aberrant billion-pick season in 2009, the Saints more or less stopped intercepting passes—but they were distinguished, in my memory and on game tape, as a truly terrible tackling team. (The sole exception is safety Roman Harper, who can’t cover a statue, but at least hits hard enough to knock one over.) Still, the team won much more than it lost, and there was never so much as a whisper that Williams’ job was in trouble.

On reflection, Williams was never in jeopardy because to see the Saints defense as simply “bad” is to fail to put it in its context. The GWIME developed in tandem with the Drew Brees High Octane Touchdown Fantasia, and came to fill a weird evolutionary niche alongside that offense. It was, in retrospect, a very comfortable niche. The Saints defense didn’t have to make the play on every down, or most downs. It didn’t have to stop the opposing offense from scoring on every drive, or most drives. If Williams threw the kitchen sink at the quarterback often enough, eventually the quarterback would respond with two incomplete passes in a row. The GWIME needed only to succeed more than the opposing team’s defense did against DBHOTF, and even great defenses don’t stop the DBHOTF much.

Whether or not this worked, it did at least seem like everyone was having fun. The defense is happy because they get to throw their bodies around with abandon, hitting everyone and everything as hard as they can, picking up the odd personal foul (one per game, at least), stopping the opposing team from scoring on occasion and generally enjoying the pleasantness of a pressure-free job. Brett Favre is probably still icing down his sore legs from the 2009 NFC Championship game; he also threw for 300 yards.

This is the idea that’s come through when reconsidering the Saints D with the knowledge that Williams was providing an extra financial incentive for big hits. When offered a chance to follow up on his article after the bounty news was out, Star recognized his own recognition of what was really going on. He had little explanation for the behavior he saw, so he called it an “Ineffective Mayhem Experiment.” Now he and we know better:

… Causing long-term damage at the expense of short term goals like, say, tackling was actually how the defensive scheme was intended to work. And with that confession, my postmortem instantly (and improbably) flipped from irony to wisdom.

Two GWIME features I highlighted seem especially and inextricably related to a team with a bounty-driven scheme: frequent personal fouls and terrible tackling. The DBs all had the same tackling style—dive high at the receiver, shoulder first. “Form tackling” or “wrapping up the ballcarrier” might prevent extra yards, but they also wouldn’t get you paid. The Saints were flagged and fined for all manner of nonsense: late hits, head shots and cheap shots, too. The bounties weren’t big enough to cover the fines, but that hardly seems the point. The fines are peanuts anyway; bounties are for pride. Bounties were designed more to motivate than anything else, even if they reportedly reached $50,000 during the Saints 2009 postseason run. And, in that regard, they worked.

Read the rest here.

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3 thoughts on “Scrutiny of the Bounty: A prequel

  1. Pingback: Scrutiny of the Bounty: Chapter 2 – The Pretension | ALDLAND

  2. Pingback: Scrutiny of the Bounty: An Epilogue | ALDLAND

  3. Pingback: Jonathan Vilma’s response to his one-year suspension | ALDLAND

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